The advent of a new Hot Spots volume has reminded me of a question which comes up from time to time: Why buy an historical GURPS book when you can just look up stuff on the web? It's not just potential customers who ask this. It's a question which keeps the GURPS editorial staff up at night. Not surprisingly, I have a multi-part answer to that question:
1) The premise of the question is flawed. Contrary to what some might think, not everything is on the web. Some material is, obviously ("China is over there. Farther. Little to the left. Up. There."), but certainly not all or even most. The depth of research in GURPS historicals is frequently such that the authors have to pick up dusty old books and page through things which haven't been digitized and exposed to the web for free nor are they likely to be any time soon, or to hit up journals and new books which are still behind paywalls or are undigitized and available only through libraries. You can Google for information on the historical topic, but you'll never find everything you get in a GURPS book on the web, or even from readily available and non-specialist books.
2) Being on the web doesn't make it right. Although easily available sources can give you a decent overview of a subject, individual facts can be suspect. For example, if you do a web search on the origins of paper, just about every source attributes the invention of paper to a Chinese emperor at the dawn of the second century AD. Although that's a widely held traditional belief, much deeper digging into less accessible sources puts the invention of paper at some point in the first century BC. Some topics are more prone to error than others; on-line accounts of historical weapons and armor, for example, are often full of breathless exaggerations and poor scholarship repeated as articles of faith.
3) There's also GURPS content. If you're playing GURPS, presumably you'll need GURPS stats at some point. Some is likely available (What's the top speed of an Albanian Z-22 fighter jet produced during the Cold War? About how big is a Hanseatic man-o-war?) or can be easily generated (for example, HP for any item follows from weight; if you know how big that man-o-war is, you can get hit points), but some stats require a bit of thought and judgement by someone who knows GURPS rules. What's the DR of that Hanseatic ship, and how much damage does the Z-22's 26mm cannon do? The GURPS author takes care of that for you.
4) Even for non-game-stat information which is available on-line, there are important functions of filtering and anticipation. GURPS authors don't just find information and hurl it at you. Believe it or not, there's considerable thought about what is and isn't included. Writing sourcebooks for historical games is a strange mix of technological, political, military, economic, and cultural history which you're unlikely to find in other fields (Some come close; there are writers' guides for historical periods to aid the author of, say, neo-Austen Gothic novels and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but they tend to lack sufficient coverage of hitting people to be really useful for RPGs). Authors go through diverse sources for information particularly relevant to composing adventures and putting players into the mindset of natives to a place and time period. Hot Spots: Renaissance Florence could have presented extended summaries of various literary works, but it didn't. Instead, it spent pages on describing what PCs would be likely to eat, what people would be likely to wear, what people they might meet would talk about, what they'd do for fun, and other stuff they'd need to know if they were living there. You're paying for the work of doing the research, getting what you need, taking out what you don't, and getting it into a neat, edited package instead of spending countless hours doing background instead of working on specific adventures and, dare I say, actually playing.
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