Saturday, July 23, 2016

Review: Low-Tech

Reviewing the big GURPS book is always an intimidating task for me because there is so much to say about them. In the past, I have already reviewed Low-Tech Companion 1,2, and 3, but I haven't reviewed Low-Tech proper. Furthermore, Low-Tech is more of a background knowledge and advice book more than a rule book, and different strokes for different folks, but I, myself, personally prefer rulebooks to advice. Nonetheless, Low-Tech is integral to any Tech Level 0-4 GURPS game, and due to its particular mechanically light nature, maybe even low-tech games in other systems? Let's take a closer look.


Table of Contents, Page 1
The PDF I have is 163 pages, but doesn't count the cover in the real page count, so 161 pages. The book proper starts on page 5 (or 7) and ends on page 154 (or 156) for 149 pages of real stuff, though, the Bibliography for the longer GURPS book is actually a pretty pleasurable reference if you get bored and want to pick up some non-fiction. The book is split into 9 chapters, starting with a 12 page chapter on The Age of Labor, continuing to a 14 page chapter on Core Technologies, then a 9 page chapter on General Equipment, a 10 page chapter on Information Technologies, a whopping 44 page chapter on Weapons, 19 pages on Defenses, a 14 page chapter on Security and Covert Ops, a 12 page chapter on Mobility and Transportation, and an 11 page chapter on Medicine and Surgery.
Table of Contents, Page 2
The vast majority of this book is background information, with a lot of guidance, some data in the form of lists of weapons and equipment, and very little in the way of new rules. Basically, it integrates into Vanilla games using rules only from Basic Set very well, only explaining minutiae that has a direct impact on games taking place in the given timeframe.
Organization is a bit atypical, due to the type of content presented. Instead of focusing on things in terms of different areas of importance for GURPS itself, the book is split into thematic chapters. On the one hand, I think this makes for a better straightforward read through with like grouped with like and such, on the other, it weakens it as a reference material for games because there is no place to look for all templates or for all introduced equipment, since each chapter speaks to the things that concern the given theme instead. Illustrations are excellent as is typical for older GURPS 4E books, and pull-quotes are sparse but varied and on-point. Each chapter starts with a short fictional anecdote and they all have an either obvious or subtle running common thread, and it is enjoyable seeing how the story progresses throughout out the book, each piece being relevant to the given chapter, and usually having a little piece of ironic humor as a punchline, like mentioning how some technology you the reader take for granted is some kind of a silly impossible fantasy.
Though I do prefer reading books about rules, I do find this book useful for pointing out anachronisms, and maintaining the suspension of disbelief. There are a lot of things that movies and popular culture get wrong, of course about what is appropriate for a world set in 1000 AD, and this book does do a good job of straightening questions out like that. Though I do prefer the companions to Low-Tech, it definitely has some value, especially in making those three supplements even more accessible.

The Age of Labor

What this chapter might suggest, obtusely or otherwise, is that we are going to be talking about some GURPS fundamentals and what the impacts of playing in a Low-Tech setting might have on them. We start with a discussion of core labor technologies for each of the tech levels represented in this book, which helps set the stage for the chapter. We then have some exploratory thoughts on alternative history gaming, and how reducing or increasing relative technology might impact an ancient civilization. This leads into a small primer on important notes on certain advantages and skills in Low Tech games, for example, widespread literacy wasn't always a thing, but the default rules assume that all characters have at least written and spoken fluency in one language for free, and it goes into other similar considerations. We then have a bit of discussion on equipment customization and invention rules, and thoughts on trying to invent gunpowder and other world changing technologies out of cycle with meta-knowledge. 
I enjoy this chapter, but my biggest gripe is the poor naming which doesn't really clarify anything about what it contains. If a pithy title was required, something like "Foundation of Antiquity" might have driven across the fact that this is a fundamentals chapter.

Core Technologies

This chapter has a much more apt title, as herein is discussed various and sundry technologies for several critical industries, mundane and adventurous, from the stone age to the age of sail. For the most part, this chapter is almost purely informational and system agnostic. Here and there, however is a reference to a relevant skill, ands the section on harvesting wood has a formula involving basic lift to give an idea of how long it takes to fell a tree, and we have a formula for creating custom ropes of various strengths. Typical prices are given in GURPS terms for a lot of raw materials and tools which can be very helpful if you decide to engage in a down-to-earth adventure of helping to construct roads and bridges, or if that is too boring and mundane, maybe being the person that protects those people from monsters/bandits/etc.
The chapter is a very entertaining read, but I wish it had more how instead of, or along with the vast amount of what. Some of the how is addressed in the Low-Tech Companion supplements, but, maybe me being fascinated with rules for everything from the mundane or the fantastic, I still want more details and more mechanics.

General Equipment

The good naming spree continues, and this chapter speaks to equipment. One gripe I have for the organization however is there are pieces of equipment already sprawled throughout the previous chapters, and more to come following this one. If I had my way, all equipment would be in one place, and this would be a great place for it... though, I prefer my huge tables to be near the start or end of a book, so maybe move the chapter too. 
This chapter does however contain a lot of mechanically useful equipment, alongside some stuff that is just for fun or setting a scene, but altogether what is here is interesting to read, and accompanied with explanatory texts.

Information Technologies

This chapter deals with books, research, tools to conduct science, and instruments of navigation. It mostly follows the format of the previous chapter, if not being a little more expository and informative, so all the same praise and criticism of the previous chapter applies again here, with the one improvement that a lot of these tools have a more well-defined mechanical use and effect.


This is the biggest chapter in the book. It includes a helpful rosetta stone for converting particularly noteworthy weapons of antiquity to use stats for already existing similar, but generic weapons from the Basic Set with some stats for those that truly don't have an appropriate equivalent. Throughout the chapter interesting customization options and extra rules present themselves in asides, perhaps to break up the flow of a several pages long glossary, especially useful is the weapon quality table on p.59. Speaking of the weapon catalog, there are 6 pages of added melee weapons, over 2 pages of muscle-powered ranged weapons, over a page of siege weaponry, and what looks like nearly a page of guns scattered about, ending with a page of very detailed explanation of firearm accessories.
This chapter has a ton of good content, and it is fun reading the descriptions on all the variations of the weapons, but I wish the tables of equipment were all grouped together better. High-Tech has an abbreviated guns only PDF; maybe this book should include an abbreviated shopping list PDF as well?


Almost required.
This chapter mostly covers armor and tools like shields protecting ourselves. It more follows the format of the General Equipment and Information Technologies than the Weapons chapter, which I think was an annoying decision because lots of important information is scattered about instead of being in one place. Even worse, instead of literally statting out the costs of most equipment, most pieces are priced and weighed as a function against Torso armor, the only armor that was actually included in the book. The supplement Low-Tech: Instant Armor gives these numbers, and is inexpensive, but shouldn't have had to happen in my opinion.
The sections on animal armor, shields, and optional rules are good though, but overall this chapter is close to a tragedy.

Security and Covert Ops

This is a real good chapter in terms of what I like to read about because it is something that really speaks to elements that make an adventure more interesting. We have barriers, traps, poisons, locks, intrusion, authentication, and all things we care about for our clandestine adventures. Like many of the chapters before, each core piece of technology has a fascinating digest, but many of the items discussed here have the mechanical underpinnings that I wish most of the other sections had. Very entertaining read, and the material is definitely useful.

Mobility and Transportation

The vehicles chapter; boats, wagons, submersibles (yes really,) mounts, skis, whatever. That's what we got here. Having the vehicle stats alone is a fantastic aid, but the chapter is also a fun read with history delivered in soundbite chunks. I have nothing particularly outstanding to say besides what I've said for almost every other chapter of the book.

Medicine and Surgery

The chapter is exactly what it says, covering contemporary medical techniques and equipment, but the one specially fascinating section for me is on Drugs, Herbs, and Herbal Extracts. It sounds like some really gameable stuff, but I haven't been able to apply it in all my experience yet. If nothing else, it could be a decent baseline for creating more fanciful recovery potions in my less-than-realistic games. The entire chapter is fun to read I think because I like seeing how far we've come and all the surprising things that people got right and wrong with medical technology. It's kinda amusing that handwashing before surgery was only invented less than 200 years ago, and this chapter's near misses and hits are the kinda stuff I like to read about. Plus, it's nice that this chapter has the mechanical fortitude that the Security and Covert Ops chapter had.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

I dunno why, but I've been spacey all day, so I wrote this post over the course of several hours and several breaks. This is one of the first GURPS books I bought, but I haven't started reviewing my longer books until recently. I'm kinda surprised when I put a critical eye to a book and find out it is better than I remembered. I don't know if the difference is the experience that let's me understand how useful this book can be, or something else, but I remember having a pretty meh reaction the first time I looked at it, especially when I compare it to my whole-hearted enthusiasm for the Low-Tech Companion follow-on books. In retrospect, I think this is a really good book, except for the Defense chapter. Maybe the lesson I've learned here is that one should only start diving into the tech books after they have experience with some of the more fundamental parts of the system... or maybe I just learn slow?


  1. I was going to comment that this isn't an older GURPS book, but then I realized it's been out six years now :X

    I find this to be one of my favorite references, because even my "Fantasy" games are pretty grounded in earthy realism. For the most part. It is to GURPS low tech armor what Martial Arts is to melee weapons. It also introduces a rule I personally rather like: Blunt Trauma and Edged Weapons. My opinion is that it's a fantastic rule, and one I'd invoke in just about any game. Peter Del'Ortho disagrees, however!

    1. Yeah, there is definitely some good stuff in there. I think my earlier misjudging just had to do with not having enough experience with the system to be able to appreciate everything going on in there.

    2. I think it has the greatest utility to people who don't really have much history education on these things. I did (though still learned a few things), but not everyone. There was a Pyramid Article (at play in the fields IIRC) that expands agriculture a bit. There was a time where my worldbuilding efforts were focused on explaining the logistics of settlements - I'd mete out how much land was under crop, etc - exhausting and essentially fruitless!

  2. FWIW, and Bill would have to confirm this, but I believe "The Age of Labor" is parallel with the opening headings in Ultra-Tech ("Ages of Technology") and High-Tech ("The Equipment Age").

    1. That makes sense. My issue is pretty subjective, but I do like the table of contents to clearly tell me what is in a book and chapter titles to tell me what is in the chapter, and it's awesome if you can come up with something flavorful AND meaningful, but if it is one or the other, the second wins.

      That said, it's a pretty trivial thing when you consider the rest of the book.


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