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GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road, Matt Riggsby 04 June 2017

This historical GURPS supplement looks at the Silk Road during the peak years of its importance, between roughly the second and tenth centuries AD.

After giving a basic orientation, the first chapter deals with the geography and terrain of the trade routes that have collectively come to be known as the Silk Road (with diversions into the shortcomings of pinyin romanisation), and some notes on just where navigation becomes challenging, and the general experience of travel along the roads. Maps are not well-handled, being monochrome and broken across multiple PDF pages: all right if there's going to be a print edition at some point, not so great for on-device reference.

The second chapter deals with the history of the area, in particular which states controlled various parts of it, and as a result how safe (and therefore worth doing) trade could be at different times – and what travelled along the roads, both goods (silk and horses shifting to porcelain, but that travelled better by ship) and ideas (Buddhism in particular).

The third chapter is a gazetteer of notable places, with notes on local geography, junctions in the routes, and a few significant features; it's a necessarily superficial treatment with only a paragraph or two per town or pass. The chapter continues with a list of the various nations and groups with an interest in the area, both political and religious.

The fourth chapter, "War and Money", is a bit of a grab-bag: which soldiers and fighting men will be travelling and how armed, but more importantly what gets shipped and how. Most of the trade is relatively local, of course, with few merchants having the funds or time to undertake the full length of the trip, but silk and horses may make the whole trip, and other goods are noted with typical costs (as well as the costs of transport).

Finally, "Life on the Silk Road" deals with the day-to-day routine: what do you wear, what music do you play, what else do you do for fun, what do you eat, what sort of building do you sleep in, what languages do you speak? This leads into the final chapter which deals with game mechanics in rather more detail than we've seen so far: no templates, but some notes on skills, cultural familiarities, and likely types of character. Four very rough campaign ideas come next: travellers (for money, religion or war), a "wild east" of isolated pockets of civilisation, the Great Game (though there's very little support in this supplement for the 19th century), how readily one can drop in various sorts of foreigner, and finally a suggestion for relatively fixed campaigns with travellers passing by. The chapter ends with some suggested crossovers, from the historical to the fantastic (in the latter case of course all the real-world cultural information would have to be rejigged).

This is an odd book. It's a solid real-world reference, which is a type of role-playing book that's largely gone out of style these days, but Matt has made a good case for the value of research that goes beyond what's readily available on-line. It's a very high-level and minimal-stats view of a huge subject, and there's nothing here that a harrassed GM can reach for in a hurry: it's a planning tool at the campaign level, rather than anything that can be dropped into existing settings. Both quotes and art are pretty sparse, and the book comes over as dry at times… until you start digging into the possibilities in the text.

I'm not immediately inspired to run a Silk Road campaign, but it's something I'll certainly keep up my sleeve next time I'm thinking about new games. And of course it could be tacked on quite effectively to that brutal fantasy game I've been thinking of… Hot Spots: The Silk Road is available from Warehouse 23.

See also:
Pyramid 103: Setbacks

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