GURPS generally enjoys a reputation for good reference supplements. One that caught me particularly by surprise was when I borrowed a friend’s copy of GURPS High-Tech. I’m not really into guns, but I was impressed by broad-based historical info on all subjects from ~1450 to the present as well as for the historical interest given on the guns themselves.

Low-Tech, to cover from the Stone Age through the Middle Ages was an actively requested book in the mid-’90s (when I was on the GURPSnet mailing list). Sadly, I missed it when it did come out (I was in a non-RPG cycle by that time). I have just recently gotten a copy and gone through it.

Get the Bad out of the way: The cover
It’s not exactly bad concept, or composition, but the color intensity of most of the cover art elements are about the same, and just blend into each other. Uninspired at best, muddy at worst. Worse, is the use of Avalon for the title logo, done too big, and massively scaled to make font that is naturally very wide fit into the available space. I’m not a big fan of the font (sure, it can be nice once in a while… Diablo is about my personal limit), and I could have done with a different choice on the cover and all the major section headings.

Also, while I thought the binding was holding up, the bulk of the book separated from the spine about the time I finished a read-through of it. This seems to be a very common problem of SJG books of the time, and I’ve gotten used to being prepared to just use some Elmer’s to put it back together, which generally works fine.

Defining Technology
Thankfully, while it is nice for a cover to look good, that’s not why I got the book. It is divided into 5 chapters; a beginning section that lays out the common precepts of the book, one chapter each on Tech Levels 0-3, and an appendix that gives arms and armor details. In addition, there’s a good 2-page glossary, and a very nice 3-page bibliography. I don’t know most of the books in it, but the ones I do know are very good.

The introductory chapter focuses on the GURPS Tech Level system itself, and talks about the fact that some societies won’t show a consistent TL across all categories. Reasonably obvious stuff, but it needed saying somewhere. In addition, there’s a two-page job table suitable for the entire period covered in the book (pretty well done, considering the broad subject).

Through the Ages
The bulk of the book is discussions of technology and capabilities at various tech levels. I’m something of a history nut, and much of my reading over the last decade has focused around the Roman Empire, so there’s not a lot that was completely new to me. However, the highlights of a very broad subject are covered very well, including discussions of how nomadic cultures fall into the TL scheme, and other anomalies.

Since there is relatively little technology to cover, the section on the Stone Age works out fairly well, covering just about all the high points. Skills needed for various tasks, just how much food can be gathered, and how much meat can be gotten from game. Since adventurers are likely to be hunting for themselves in any setting up to TL5 (19th century), this has some good figures for a lot of campaigns.

The Bronze Age chapter has a good example of the type of data that can make GURPS books good references, a sidebar that gives the energy output (in kWs) of burning different general types of wood. Beyond any further utility of hard numbers, it’s a good way to compare them against each other. There’s also a couple of GURPS Martial Arts-style maneuvers for use with chariots.

The Iron Age chapter gave me a couple of problems since I’m so used to thinking of the heyday of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire as two very different periods, even though they’re both Iron Age cultures. So I was fighting my instincts while they did the only thing they could in an overview this broad.

The Middle Ages feels like even more of an overview to me, though there’s no real reason why that is so. Certainly, there’s a good sidebar on how to judge a flame catching something on fire that could be used almost anywhere (mostly meant for fire arrows and Greek fire here). There’s also a table detailing the various components of horse barding.

The final appendix supplements all the general equipment given at each TL with hard stats for various weapons, armor, and vehicles. There’s also a page talking about various materials weapons can be made from and how that affects quality and the chance of the weapon breaking, in an enhancement of the rules in Basic Set. Another page deals with customizing weapons from the standard types given with things like flanges and butt-spikes. It is claimed that this allows construction just about any type of polearm that has a meaningful in-game difference. Sadly, I can’t find my copy of Unearthed Arcana to take them up on it. 😉 The armor table also includes some optional rules for more detail with head protection from helmets.

A nice thing about the weapons tables is that in the sections it covers, it includes the original Basic Set weapons, as well as the new ones, so you don’t need to refer to both places. However, there are a few things that aren’t in the new set (generally post-medieval), so you may need to go back to the original sometimes. Similarly, the armor tables are a much more detailed look at the equipment given in Basic Set, plus new items. There’s also about a page and a half of vehicle statistics (‘vehicle’ includes things like dog sleds…), mostly worked out with GURPS Vehicles (Second Edtion), but with speeds figured using statistics for harnesses given in the text of the book.

But what’s it worth?
For someone GMing a low-tech campaign in GURPS 3rd Edition, this is a very handy resource. Even if you have a more specific world book (say, GURPS Greece), there’s a lot of context here that can help out. Similarly, there’s a lot of little bits that can be handy in the oddest places. Most of it can be done off the cuff, but if you want something a little more consistent, and thought-through ahead of time, as usual, GURPS delivers. I was wowed by the original High-Tech, and it’s successor does just as good a job.

For someone not using GURPS, it is much harder to say. A lot will depend on the person. If you don’t have a lot of grounding in the period, then it definitely is a good primer on the subject. Even if you do, it can be handy to have it all put into one place like this. Also, some of the pure data that crops up can be very handy on occasion.

GURPS 4th Edition doesn’t have an equivalent book, and the SJG website does point people to this book as a related item to GURPS High-Tech (Fourth Edition). I haven’t made the jump to 4th Ed myself, so I don’t know how much some things have changed, though I know there have been some changes. Assuming that actual damage and DR numbers for weapons and armor in Basic Set stayed the same, then that should convert over well, and Low-Tech as a whole should do very well under the 4th Ed rules.