I had high hopes for this e-book when I bought it, and as a gamer, I hoped to find this work would be a work of historical excellence. I was especially pleased to see that one of the authors, Gene Moyers, studied medieval history at the University of Oregon. GURPS Crusades has much information that is good, but also some that draws on stereotypes. Some of the information seems to expect the reader to accept the cultural stereotype of Muslims during the Crusades as well-educated, pious, and peace-loving, while Christians were illiterate and brutish (though it doesn’t specifically encourage this stereotype). As a medievalist it’s my job to be picky, but this book does achieve its primary goal.
GURPS Crusades, as a tabletop RPG book, has to take on a massive amount of information in a small space. This is not intended to be a history book, and with that in mind, it does a good job of covering basic information. It names many of the major events and people in such ways that the reader may easily look for a good history for more information. Pg. 26 asserts that religion was important for medieval man in ways that will be difficult for modern man to understand (absolutely true—a pity there are no examples to elaborate). Much of the information in this book is handy for quick reference and as a general introduction to the Crusades, giving the reader a historical crash course necessary to play a historically inspired tabletop game.
Aspects Needing Improvement
Though much of the information is good, some of it is still problematic. The text comes with the disclaimer that “Many events in the history of the Crusades are colored by inaccurate accounts, poor documentation, or outright prejudice. The accounts in this book will not agree with all available historical sources on the Crusades – but then, these often contradict each other” (pg. 10). I don’t think that this is an adequate excuse for some of the mistakes because much of the information which I am about to point out is common knowledge to medieval scholars. Only a few items are incorrect facts—many are simply overgeneralizations likely to lead readers to erroneous conclusions.
- The authors don’t seem to know what to do with the crusading orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights). GURPS Crusades mentions that “They cannot perform marriages, conduct exorcisms, or hear confessions” (pg. 31), which is true. However,I think this information will likely leave the reader confused as to what they actually are: warriors who have taken vows similar to religious vows. It calls them “warrior monks” (pg. 6), which would be a useful term for assigning a Templar to an RPG class, but is not accurate.
- The text says that Crusaders were sent to Constantinople by “a Catholic Church which hoped to take over the east from Orthodoxy” (pg. 10). This is not accurate. The primary motivation was to protect fellow Christians from the hostile numbers threatening their communities. The secondary motivation was that this act of charity would improve relations with the Orthodox Church and, in a best-case scenario, unite them with the Holy See. This is correctly explained here: “A movement of Christian warriors led by the papacy would not only save Christian lives and liberate the Holy Lands from Muslim domination. It might also lead to the rejoining of the two churches under the papacy.” (pg. 10). Since these two quotes say very different things, readers may have a hard time making use of this information.
- In multiple places, GURPS Crusades states that Crusaders were enticed by “opportunities to conquer and rule Eastern lands.” (pg. 10) promised by Pope Urban II. Pope Urban II promised no colonization opportunities, and Crusades scholars have provided ample documentation on how any economic motivation for crusading or plans for colonization are inventions of modernist (usually Marxist) thought.
- GURPS Crusades is unclear on the idea of indulgences and remission of sins. It says that Crusaders were promised that “they would store up riches in Heaven by retaking the Holy Lands for Christianity, and their past sins would all be forgiven.” (pg. 10). This is true, but indulgences attached to Crusading required a Crusader to confess his sins and conduct all of his crusading affairs with solely pure intentions—protection of pilgrims in the Holy Land, not revenge or hatred against Muslims. While the information presented by GURPS is factually correct, without an explanation of the conduct required to receive said indulgences, readers will likely come to the wrong conclusion. It is wrong to assume that the worst types of men were promised indulgences for their sinful conduct.
- Next, we have this: “In Germany, Crusade-inspired mobs robbed and murdered thousands of Jews; no less infidels than Muslims were, they were much closer to hand.” (pg. 12). It is quite true that Crusading mobs in Germany killed many Jews. I have never found totals, but I suspect readers might imagine totals much higher than histories suggest (how many is “thousands,” exactly? 2,000? 850,000?). It is wrong to say that Jews and Muslims were equally seen as “the infidel.”
- Pg. 25 says that “Muslim culture was more advanced at this time” with no further elaboration. I can’t figure out exactly what this statement means, but again, readers will likely assume that Muslims were educated and cultured while Christians were illiterate and brutish. However, both types of people can be found on both sides.
- Pg. 24 also suggests that Crusaders considered pillaging the villages that they passed “legitimate foraging.” No.
- Pg. 26 says that threats of damnation and excommunication were used to raise funds. I have only found threats of excommunication in places where aristocrats had taken sacred vows to undergo or fund a Crusade, then later refused to do so. Swearing oaths was a vital and important part of society—to refuse to fulfill such an oath had serious social and religious repercussions, all of which the oath-taker would have been aware of when taking the oath.
- Pg. 29 insists that “As Christian leaders saw the effectiveness of Muslim archers, the crossbow was frequently added to the standard infantry equipment of spear and shield.” The Church forbade crossbow use against other people because it was too brutal. Crossbows were only used for hunting.
- This is my favorite quote: “The Crusades take place in a time when standards of personal hygiene were fairly low. Bathing even once a month was rare for the upper classes. What we would consider an Odious Personal Habit today was an everyday failing at the time….” (pg. 31). NO!
- Pg. 31 also insists that most knights at this time were illiterate. No.
- Finally, pg. 40 concludes with a short passage on the Gnostic Gospels. I can’t figure out why that section is here, unless one may want to play a DaVinci Code game.
GURPS Crusades finishes with books and films for further information. I have not seen or read many of them so I can’t comment on the validity of most. Some works are from respected Crusades scholars such as Jonathan Riley-Smith. Some works are complete garbage. However, the bibliography is annotated with the type of information to be gleaned from each source, so the discerning reader can likely make good use of this information.
GURPS Crusades is not a travesty of history; neither is it exemplary. It achieves its primary goal, which is to provide gamers with basic information in order to play a Crusades-era tabletop RPG. It would be nice if it achieved this goal with more attention to the medieval cultural climate. However, I can’t fault them for this because this is not a scholarly work, nor does it pretend to be, and an RPG is a great way to inspire gamers to do their own research on the Crusades.
GURPS Crusades is available from Steve Jackson Games for $7.99. PDF only.