Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Retrospective: Citybook I: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

When I look back on my own early years in the hobby, I recognized that, by and large, I avoided "generic" roleplaying game supplements, preferring instead to purchase "official" ones. There are exceptions here and there. I regret such brand-based snobbery now, because, among other things, it missed out on a number of genuinely excellent RPG books, such a the Citybook series published by Flying Buffalo. 

Years later, I had the chance to see copies of the series and was quite surprised by how good most of them were, starting with Citybook I: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker. Edited by Larry DiTillio (of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame, among other things), the first volume appeared in 1982 and features twenty-five different places of business – "business" being very broadly defined – to drop into a fantasy city of your choice. The entries are written by a variety of authors, such as DiTillio himself, Liz Danforth, Michael Stackpole, and Steven S. Crompton, and several others unknown to me. Consequently, the entries have varied tone and content, which contributes greatly to its utility, I think, since the referee has plenty of options to suit his own tastes.

The entries are divided into categories, namely lodging and entertainment, personal services, hardware, food services, community services, spiritual services, and security services. Each category includes at least two entries, though some, like personal services, contain quite a few more. The entries all follow a similar format, providing first an overview of the establishment, its important NPCs (starting with its proprietor), its layout (complete with map), and some scenario suggestions. Since the text is nearly 120 pages in length, most entries are three or four pages in length, with some being even longer – more than enough detail to get the referee started in imagining the place in question. In addition to the aforementioned maps, the entries are illustrated (by Danforth, Crompton, and Stephan Peregrine), depicting not just NPCs but also other aspects of the businesses, such as the goods they offer for sale. 

The entries are consistently quite good, in part, I think, because none of them feel truly generic. For example, the Diamond Spider Tavern is quite different from the Grey Minstrel Inn, reflecting not just the personalities of their owners but also their histories (the Grey Minstrel Inn being haunted, for example). Likewise, Bron Arvo's Armory is quite distinct from Blades by Tor, despite the fact that they're both weapons outfitters of the sort adventurers usually visit. It's a testament to the writers' imaginations that they can make even mundane businesses feel unique and, in many cases, compelling enough to serve as more than places for characters to drop a few coin. As someone who's often struggled with this in my own forays into urban adventuring, I was quite impressed.

Citybook I is still available in electronic form from Flying Buffalo, along with the other entries in the series, of which there were ultimately seven installments. Not having seen any of the others, I can't offer any comments about their quality, but, if they're anywhere near as well done and creative as the ones in Citybook I, that's money well spent. The first entry in the series surprised me with its excellence and made me re-evaluate my opinion of many third party supplements produced during the heyday of the hobby. In future entries in this series, I'll take a greater look at some of them.


  1. I have them all, and yes, they’re excellent. Personally, I would say that Citybook I is towards the lower end of the series in terms of quality, though as you say, it’s still very good.

    Of course, these were the inspiration for Arcana: Societies of Magic which we wrote.

  2. FWIW, you may still be able to get most of the series in print form from Flying Buffalo directly - they still show up on the pdf for their product price list:

    Their site's ordering system is archaic beyond belief, but it seems to still be open for orders. You can also find these books on the secondary market like Amazon and ebay pretty regularly.

    If you enjoyed the Citybook series, the two Lejentia worldbooks (Skully's Harbor and Fort Bevits) might also be of interest. They 're more setting-specific (and a weird setting at that) but still intriguing and share some of the same overall style.

  3. The Blade/Flying Buffalo era was one of the highlights of the industry in those days, AFAIC. These Citybooks, Grimtooths, the later T&T Solos, and the MSPE line and related products (in particular, Stormhaven, which AFAIC is one of the very best adventure products ever written). Fold in some stellar issues of Sorcerer's Apprentice for good measure.

    1. Please use an IMO, or "for my tastes" in lieu of one of those AFAIC's ;o)

  4. Thanks for the suggestion. I have no experience with these supplements.

  5. I collected these as they came out. I've never made too much use of them, but that's partly because I've never managed a really good city campaign. If I ever bust out Thieve's Guild, these would drop into Haven nicely, though maybe I'd want to stat up a few of the non-humans that show up in the series.

    There was a bundle of holding for them some time back so I now have PDF backup of the series.

  6. I regret missing these back in the day. At the time I felt similarly that anything "generic" must also have been "inferior".
    I did get a chance a couple years ago to pick up (reasonably) another Catalyst Series book that I don't remember seeing back in the day: Treasure Vault
    It now holds a place of honor shelved with my T&T books.

  7. I'm glad I was never afflicted with an aversion to third party products, but I wish I had collected the Citybook volumes when they were released.