Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Retrospective: Lankhmar: City of Adventure

I'm a sucker for fantasy cities. I'm not entirely sure of the precise origin of my fascination with them, but I have little doubt that Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar played a role in cultivating it. I was – and am – a huge fan of the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Consequently, their home base, the City of the Black Toga, the City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes, is forever lodged in my imagination as the fantasy city par excellence.  

When TSR published Lankhmar: City of Adventure in 1985, there was no question about whether I'd buy it. Though I'd already seen both The Free City of Haven and Thieves' World (and likely a few other similar products), neither of them had the same kind of immediate appeal for me as did Lankhmar. I remember first seriously thinking about the possibilities of playing D&D in Nehwon after I got my copy of Deities & Demigods, but I never actually did so. With the release of this 96-page softcover book, however, I thought the time might have come to take the plunge at last.

Written by the trio of Bruce Nesmith, Douglas Niles, and Ken Rolston, Lankhmar: City of Adventure aims to do two things: describe the titular city as a roleplaying locale and provide rules and guidelines for playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in Nehwon. Of these two goals, the least interesting is the former, in large part because the implied setting of Gygaxian D&D is already very similar to that of Leiber's fiction. Most of what's needed is a different selection of monsters and deities – both of which this book provides in their own chapters – and a reduction in the prevalence of magic and you're most of the way there. With regard to magic, Lankhmar reduces it to two kinds, black and white, with most magic in Nehwon being black and, therefore, out of the hands of player characters. While perhaps a bit simplistic, it's not a terrible approach and I'm sympathetic to the designers who opted for it rather than creating an entirely unique magic system for Nehwon.

The description of the city is quite good and generally hews quite closely to Leiber's stories (all of which get summaries at the start of the book). The city is divided up into "districts," each of which has its own section where their most important locations are described. Each district has its own map, which fits onto the larger map of the entire city. Because even these district maps encompass a large amount of real estate, it'd be impossible to detail them entirely. To deal with this, there are portions of each map that are left blank and that are intended to be filled through the use of geomorphs presented in a little booklet found inside the back cover of Lankhmar. The referee can then fill in these blanks as he sees fit, in the process creating his own version of Lankhmar.

As impressive as the rest of Lankhmar: City of Adventure was – and it genuinely was well done – I soon found that all thoughts of running a campaign set in Leiber's world faded once I realized just how broadly useful that booklet of geomorphs was. I saw that TSR had given me the tools I needed to create my own large fantasy cities with relative ease. All I needed to do was photocopy the geomorphs I wanted from among the large selection Lankhmar provided and then fit them together as I wished. I must tell you I spent a lot of time at my local public library, making use of the Xerox machine to produce enough maps so that I could piece together a larger map of the cities of Emaindor. What fun!

In the end, it's difficult for me to disentangle my positive feelings toward Lankhmar from my memories of making use of those geomorphs. Though I do think the book does what it sets out to do quite well, what sticks with me now, decades later, is the way it inspired me to make my own cities in my own setting rather than using those that someone else had made. That's probably the highest compliment I can pay to any RPG product: it sparked my own creativity. By that measure, Lankhmar: City of Adventure is a very fine product indeed. 

17 comments:

  1. Soooo... have you seen the DCC RPG Lankhmar setting books yet? The Patron system in DCC was really built for Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser-esque adventures and modules for it are very Leiber.

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  2. I have loved and still love that Lankhmar book. Some of my best D&D memories are tied to hilarious sessions that I ran in Lankhmar. In contrast, I never had much use for the geomorphs or the square holes in the otherwise beautiful and inspiring map. The AD&D2 edition and the boxed set were worthy successors. As for the MRQ version, the least said, the better. I'm tempted by the Savage Worlds and DCC versions of L. But I'm not into SW and I actively dislike DCC.

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  3. I was out of RPGs at the time this was published and never saw it until many years later as a collector. I know I would have been ecstatic in 1985 to find it on a shelf. FWIW Mongoose did a stellar Lankhmar hardcover in the Y2Ks when they were publishing Runequest (MRQ2), Well worth picking up for someone interested in running a game there (it's very light on game mechanics)

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    1. Interesting that you liked the Mongoose book so much. It's not bad in my opinion, but as so many things Mongoose did it infuriates me because it looks like a missed opportunity. There's so little on cults and especially on guilds - which could have worked magnificently in RQ. There is like less than ten spells for the black wizards. And the cover art is epically bad. When I have used it it was in combination with the old AD&D material.

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    2. Ah, I see that you say MRQ2. I was referring to the MRQ1 version. The MRQ2 one is certainly superior, albeit far from perfect for my tastes.

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    3. I'm not familiar with the MRQ1 book, I should have been more clear. For my own part, I have yet to find a "perfect" representation of a great many settings, however I believe the MRQ2 Lankhmar is a solid starting point (and at least for many years was cheap on the second hand market)

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  4. I have a similar love for fantasy cities, and own all TSR ever published about Lankhmar. But, I have never used any of it. One problem for me with city adventures is that I don't know what to do with the maps! I have this gorgeous map, but should I describe how each and every alley looks, like and mention all those keyed areas they pass? Somehow I never figured out how to run city games, so they became hand wavy and kind of vague.

    I still love Lankhmar, though, and recently bought the Savage Worlds books. Of course.

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    1. In my experience (mainly in New Pavis), the place to start with a city adventure is to assume the characters have been there long enough to know their way around.

      It's not Skara Brae and they don't need to map themselves.

      The map goes in the middle of the table.

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    2. I will run a game in Pavis, I just have to. We'll see how it fares then. Thanks. I probably just need to take the plunge.

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    3. I've struggled mightily with urban adventures. I love the maps, I've been loving them since I first got City State of the Invincible Overlord in 1978. I used to purchase cities (and towns) like mad, but I've let go of a lot (including Lankmar). But I still have plenty (CSIO and other JG cities, all the Midkemia Press publications, all the Companions products, all the Catalyst City Book series, all the Thieves Guild/Haven stuff, Thieves World/Sanctuary, Pavis, and I'm pretty sure several more).

      The Lankmar geomorphs were pretty, and yet, they didn't feel that useful to me. Those square holes definitely threw me...

      But when I have tried to run urban adventures, they just start stalling out. Even my Thieves Guild/Haven campaign (run with RQ1 rules) is struggling with the city setting. Fortunately they just got a big haul and are about to go to another city to sell it... Wilderness adventure!

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  5. Another vote for the already mentioned DCC-Lankhmar boxed set and adventures.

    DCC is already pretty 'Lankhmar-esque' (even more so than D&D was IMO) but the DCCL rules really take that and turn it up to 11.

    I don't know that I would run a straight DCC game again these days, but I'd love to get DCCL to the table (or Chained Coffin or Purple Planet)

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  6. Have to admit Lankhmar doesn't come in high on my list of fantasy cities. Sanctuary, Liavek, Pavis, Ethshar of the Sands, Merovingen (although that one's scifi, I suppose), Londra, Jakalla - all come to mind ahead of it. I like the world of Nehwon as a whole and the characters in it, but the city itself doesn't stand out so much for me. Too many standout stories in the series are the ones set nowhere near the place.

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  7. Excellent. I am also a Lankhmar fan. I must re-read this supplement and Leiber's stories this summer. Thank you!

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  8. Shameless plug. If you like a great fantasy city. We have a Kickstarter up for ours called Ravensrook which is inspired by the Greyhawk city Rookroost. :) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ravensrook/ravensrook-the-black-winged-city-of-bandits-and-brigands

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  9. I have used Lankhmar as a stand-in for other fantasy cities, but never actually ran it as Lankhmar. And I agree about the holes in the map. I always thought that it half-ruined a perfectly beautiful city map.

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