Sunday, May 8, 2011

REVIEW: Vornheim

In his introduction to Zak S's Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, publisher James Raggi states upfront that
I know cities of any notable size are unique (just travel a bit and you'll see this is true) but all the cities in my games end up looking more or less the same.
I'll admit to the same problem -- the cities in my D&D campaigns often wind up being very similar to one another in actual play. Partly that's because, my love of the Lankhmar stories to the contrary, I generally see cities as rest stops between adventures rather than as adventure locales in themselves. And partly it's because it takes a lot of work to create even a medium-size city, let alone a huge fantasy metropolis. That's why Adamas in my Dwimmermount campaign is built upon the foundation of Judges Guild's City State of the Invincible Overlord, altered to suit my own preferences. When I began the campaign, it was far easier to work from an existing model than to create something new from whole cloth. This approach has worked well enough, all things considered, though it's probably helped by the fact that cities aren't the focus of my campaign. If they had been, I'd either have to stop being so lazy and do a lot more prep work before each session or else I'd need some sort of easy-to-use resource to aid me in building a city on the fly.

That's where Vornheim comes in. Subtitled "The Complete City Kit," it's a very unusual book, both physically and in terms of its content. Physically, it's a 64-page hardcover a little bit larger in size than the LBBs. Hardcovers are nothing new in gaming, even in the old school renaissance, but what makes this hardcover different is that it serves a practical purpose. If you remove Vornheim's dustcover, you'll see that, in addition to Zak's depiction of the titular city, there are words and numbers along the edges of the book's front and back. By throwing a D4 onto the cover, a referee can quickly generate all sorts of information, like the level, stats, and hit points of a character, the cost of staying at a particular inn, or the damage dealt and location of a particular attack. Likewise, one of the interior covers can be used to generate a street or city block just by dropping some dice onto it. I'm sure someone will correct me on this, but this is the first RPG book I can recall that is itself, literally, a game aid. That alone makes this a unique book.

As I already noted, Vornheim's content is also unusual. Slightly less than half of its 64 pages are devoted to describing Vornheim itself, which is a sprawling, many spired city from Zak's ongoing D&D campaign. With a few exceptions, the descriptions, much like the map of the city itself, are "impressionistic" rather than hyper-detailed, providing just enough information to get a sense of what a particular locale, organization, or NPC is like and then leaving the rest up to the referee. This has two consequences: it's easier to lift bits and pieces of Vornheim for use in your own campaign and there is no "definitive" Vornheim. In other words, this isn't City State of the Invincible Overlord or The City of Greyhawk; there are no street by street descriptions of Vornheim, its locales, and its inhabitants (though we do get a few lengthier examples, such as the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng and the Library of Zorlac).

At the same time, this book does give you "The Real Vornheim That The D&D With Pornstars Girls Play," as Zak explains in his introduction. That's because the remainder of the book is filled with rules and tables to aid in the quick -- as in right at the table during play -- generation of a city. So you get some frankly inspired rules on "urbancrawling," shortcuts for designing building floorplans, the contents of libraries, handling legal entanglements and more, along with random tables aplenty. In addition to obvious tables for randomly generating city NPCs and encounters, you also get some for books, fortunes, magic effects, the possessions found on dead bodies, and tavern names, among others. Most of these tables have a large number of entries (upwards of 100), but, more significantly, they provide little details, such as "Wants to be a cleric badly, isn't working out so well yet" or "The bartender's pet ferret is a polymorphed wizard. He doesn't know." These short little bits of fluff allow the tables to punch well above their weight class, making a referee who uses them look like he'd thought a lot about, say, the inhabitants of the Knife & Weasel tavern, when in point of fact he just rolled it up with a few dice once the players announced their characters were looking for a place to eat and drink.

From reading Vornheim, I get the impression that Zak referees a game much like I do, which is either a compliment or an insult depending on whether you think doing as little work as possible before a session is praiseworthy or not. I lack both the time and the inclination to work up all the details of a city beforehand. Experience has taught me that most of that work will be for naught anyway, as players have a nasty tendency to possess minds of their own and have their characters go places other than the ones you've lavished with loving detail and adventure hooks. So I mostly rely upon my own ability to think 10 seconds ahead of my players to keep me in good stead (aided, of course, by having the much-mentioned City State of the Invincible Overlord on hand when inspiration fails).

Now that I have Vornheim, though, there's really no doubt that I'll use it at my table. While I think it's claim to being "The Complete City Kit" is very likely an example of Raggian -- is that a word? -- marketing hype, this compact book does contain enough genuinely useful material for detailing a fantasy city on the fly to make it indispensable to any referee whose campaign involves regular urban forays outside the dungeon. I do think, however, that, multifaceted though they are, its random tables are insufficiently large for campaigns the bulk of whose playing time is spent in a city. Of course, I also think that anyone who regularly uses Vornheim's rules and tables will soon develop good enough instincts to referee urban adventures without having to make use of them all the time. In that sense, Vornheim is one of the better "how to" refereeing books written for this hobby, since it both provides lots of fish and teaches the reader how to catch his own.

My only other caveat about Vornheim is that, in terms of style, its take on fantasy is offbeat and quirky, as you'll quickly discover when using the tables. I don't personally find that an issue, since it matches my own style, but anyone expecting Vornheim to be a "generic" fantasy city supplement will likely be disappointed. There's a great deal of whimsy and wonder in its contents, intermixed with darkness and cruelty. I found myself often thinking of Jack Vance and Clark Ashton Smith while reading Vornheim and, much as I love those two authors, I'll be the first to admit that they're acquired tastes and not everyone wants their fantasy cities peopled by aristocrats obsessed with acquiring the perfect shoes or inns where spitting out the eyeballs of bio-luminescent squids is a form of gambling. Vornheim is definitely geared toward detailing cities of that sort rather than vanilla Ye Olde Fantasye City. How you feel about that will likely determine how you feel about this unique book.

Speaking for myself, I love it.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for an easy-to-use resource to aid you in detailing a fantasy city for use in your campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You're expecting a fully detailed and statted up fantasy city that you can just pick up and use.


  1. I've read the pdf version and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my hardcover.

    Having read the pdf, I can report that even though I am a vanilla role-player, I too found this supplement useful.

  2. Now this sounds like a book I might actually acquire... thanx for the review. Very enlightening.

  3. Zak's cover art doesn't exactly scream "Fantasy City Book" to me. Looks more like a WoD splatbook cover.

  4. I'll have to get this. I have a special fondness for city-based settings* and campaigns, and this sounds great.

    *(Chaosium's "Cities" and Flying Buffalo's Citybook series are special favorites.)

  5. James, given both your and the other James' interest in artwork as it relates to OSR (and other) games, I'm surprised that you didn't touch on the artwork in the book. Can you say something along those lines? I'm curious as to how closely it hews to or how wildly it deviates from both classic RPG works and contemporary OSR works.

  6. Joseph,

    Most of the artwork in the book is actually cartography of one sort or another and so I didn't even think to mention it. That's actually terribly unfair to Zak, especially since I like the maps in this book, which are as much illustrations of the locale they describe as simple orienteering aids. There is other artwork, but, with one exception, it's fairly small (no bigger than a quarter-page) and so fairly unobtrusive.

    In terms of style, it's quite different than what we've seen either in the past or in contemporary OSR art. It's definitely not "traditional" as we generally use the term in this part of the hobby, but it's also nothing like you'll find in a WotC or Paizo product either. It's very moody and verges on the surreal at times, which I think is perfectly suitable to the subject matter. It's not Trampier or Otus by any means, if that's what anyone is expecting. On the other hand, I think Zak's art is closer to early gaming art than one might expect.

  7. James said, "not everyone wants their fantasy cities peopled by aristocrats obsessed with acquiring the perfect shoes or inns where spitting out the eyeballs of bio-luminescent squids is a form of gambling..."

    Well, I was pretty sure I wanted to get this before, but now I'm SOLD.

  8. Of course, I also think that anyone who regularly uses Vornheim's rules and tables will soon develop good enough instincts to referee urban adventures without having to make use of them all the time

    I think you've hit upon a key here. I suspect if I started using Vornheim a lot it'll be the procedures combined with a little prep work. Frjanci will probably get it's own version of the tables at some point in my May Project this month. If I run a lot of adventures there it might get refreshed one.

    What Vornheim has given me is the urban crawl methods and an outline on how to do a city on the lazy: a few set pieces, random tables of a given type and size, maybe a roll on building type chart, and so on. That roll on building type chart is pure genius...and it's easy to understand just not how to use it. It's so simple it's a great example of what genius can: creating something so simple the rest of us are "why didn't I think of that, it's obvious" but in reality it isn't obvious.

    Because, if you look at how the tables work in combination with the procedures you'll realize you can design your own city in a lot less pages and a lot less detail.

    Build a man a city and he'll run a cool adventure, teach a man to build a city and he'll run a cool campaign.