Game books are history books, of a sort. Every role-playing game from “D&D” onward mines history for its inspiration. With that in mind, I am starting a new semi-regular series of reviews of actual non-fiction history books. Not only is it an interest of mine, but real history is an excellent (and cost effective) resource for game inspiration.
Full Disclosure: I paid full retail for this book at my game store.
Today I review “Saracen Strongholds AD 630-1050” from Osprey Publishing. Osprey appeared on my radar a few times in my gaming life, usually in the context of miniatures. Osprey produces several book lines with carefully researched images used by miniature painters as guides. It was not my cup of tea, but I did notice an Osprey display at my FLGS a few weeks ago and checked it out. Turns out Osprey also produces a line of books about ancient fortifications, unsurprisingly called “Fortress.” “Saracen Strongholds” is number 76 in the series. Never one to turn down a new fortification to siege, I picked it up.
Saracens held sway over much of the Middle East and North Africa and built fortresses to defend the territory. “Saracen Strongholds” is a brief (64 pages) overview of their fortifications. It includes photographs of modern ruins, black and white floor plans and artists renditions of the original fortifications and cities.
The book’s production quality is excellent. Binding, editing and layout are all well done. The writing is good for a history book, but it is a history book so the writing is a bit dry. That said, at 64 pages the author does not wear out his welcome and the information is presented in a clear, simple style. A 400-page history book is daunting, this is just right for a couple of rainy days.
The book is an interesting read, but I think it holds particular interest for gamers. Critically, it injects that most critical of elements into your game; reality. When your game takes a turn to the Middle East, using historically accurate maps and fortresses is just the thing to add a layer of reality that most games lack. Maps, images and vocabulary are all specific to the region and readily available. There is a one page list of Arabic/Turkish words regarding fortifications. It always makes a game more interesting when you can use the correct terminology. No longer will you have a fortified coastal city, now PCs visit a “ribat.” Now, doesn’t that sound better?
Over and above the technical value of of this book for flavor and fortress design, there were descriptions of battles and sieges endured by the various fortresses. One of them stuck out as a great encounter idea for a game. During the siege of Aleppo, sappers dug a tunnel into the city and accidentally hit the city’s water supply. The sappers proceeded with cutting all the water bucket ropes sent down. When that proved only a partial solution, they filled in the well! Somehow I think the defenders tried to stop them. As an encounter idea, either the PCs are at the top of the well desperately trying to protect their only water supply or they are the sappers, sabotaging the well and protecting their beachhead within the city walls. As encounters go, it is a bit different and has the potential to really make the PCs a critical part of the siege.
It is worth your time to pick up “Saracen Strongholds” and I hope to check out some of the other “Fortress” titles in the near future.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer