Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Low-Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings

This Guy!
This book isn't exactly new, but it was new to me! I bought Companion 3 a while ago, and having 3 without 1 and 2 just seemed awkward to me, so I decided to get them. Let's see what we get from Philosophers and Kings.


Table Of Contents
I like to start with a look at the table of contents to get an idea of what is all covered in this book. Approximately 1/3 of the book is dedicated to "kings", and the rest to "philosophers". The section on kings covers ways that governments have historically organized throughout the historic periods covered by Low-Tech, namely, through human prehistory to early colonial times, and then segues a bit into economics and book-keeping technologies. The philosophers section covers a wide array of intellectual pursuits, and details, how, for example the development of mathematics and typical understandings of concepts by Tech Level. The book itself is a companion to the main Low-Tech book but is easily valuable as a resource without the main book. It does make a few call backs to the original book, but not in such a way that this book lacks the information to understand it. This book is more informational than mechanical, but it does answer the type of questions that often come up in game with regards to the subjects of "how can I represent this government? How likely is it that commoner John Smith can petition Queen Jane Doe? What kind of hoops does he need to go through to have his concerns heard?"


The kings section of the book mostly describes the evolution of the state and social structure over TL0 through TL4. We get details of how leaders deal with the increasing logistical problems of expanding empires and domains as information travels very slowly at these tech levels, without innovations like semaphores, telegraphs, etc. We learn about critical civil infrastructure issues and how some countries dealt with them, like transportation systems and communication systems. The section wraps up with discussions of evolving legal systems and then economics
The information provided is very system agnostic, and makes very few references to GURPS mechanics, making it very usable even in other systems. However, if one is interested in mechanics for what is described, Social Engineering: Pulling Rank or Boardrooms and Curia might be a better place to look.


I liked the Philosophers section more than the Kings section. It starts off with a section on religious monuments and temples, and has some rules for modelling the appropriate costs of constructing such and how to handle endowments to the church.
Beyond the monuments section, it describes in a fairly mechanical manner how some people arrive at divine inspiration through altered states of mind or religious ritual in the section "Technicians of the Sacred". This was a section I found interesting and useful for describing some ways to make use of some fairly esoteric abilities.
The next section gives an early history of musical instruments and gives some slightly more complex Musical instrument rules for campaigns where resolution of minute differences between different instruments is important. It ends with an interesting quirk and technique.
In the mathematics section, we are given a summary of the history of mathematics from the original low tech book, and then introduced to some mechanical means of emulating mathematical skills in interesting ways, with several applications for timekeeping and astronomy.
The next big section covers early alchemy and eventually chemistry. It describes capabilities and skills a typical alchemist or chemist would need to have and which skills could accomplish which tasks. Although short, I liked the discussion on the maturation of the science and slow rejection of outdated theories as new evidence came to light that eventually solidified modern chemistry.
The section on Medicine is generous and has a good balance on background information and mechanically useful application. I really liked the section on religious applications in medicine and the long table for herbal pharmacy pairing certain herbs with usages and symptoms that were treated. It ends with information on public health awareness and explains how as people slowly became aware of more accurate scientific theories of disease, health slowly improved throughout the early ages; it wasn't until even fairly recently in the history of mankind it became apparent that surgeons should wash their hands for sanitary reasons. As one can guess, this was a very slow process.
The next section is about learning, which is a very important concept to a lot of GURPS campaigns in a mechanical manner of speaking, and explains the evolution of written records, learning by memorizing songs, and eventually, the classroom. This section is mostly informational, but has a few small ideas on how to implement certain memory recall techniques. A discussion of more advanced learning mechanics can be found in Social Engineering: Back to School, if desired.
The next section dives even further into the development of schools in the form of intellectual institutions. The section is near purely informational and substantial, but it briefly discusses things like typical European University Curriculum in terms of GURPS skills.
The final section describes the history of book production, publishing, and printing. It has a few rules to determine how much information can be found on a bookshelf of a given size, how long it takes to create a book at a given point in history, and how difficult it is to write before writing becomes a near ubiquitous skill.

Other Notes and Closing

The pull quotes aren't very humorous, but I guess I can forgive that given the material. I think it is a pretty interesting piece, all-in-all, but it is a little light on the mechanics for my personal taste. The Philosophers section is just barely outside of that feeling of "This is what I wanted", but the book does not lie about what it promises to deliver. None of the material is boring, and even the non-mechanical background information is almost certainly useful in any low-tech campaign, with the added benefit that perhaps since it isn't tied down by GURPS stats very often, it is more freely system agnostic. For a slow paced, slice of life campaign dealing with men of learning, or a campaign dealing with complex political structures in the low tech levels, this book is a valuable resource. For anyone else, it is merely an interesting read.
Precis - A review of the information dense Low Tech Companion 1.

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