Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Retrospective: Verbosh

In my youth, I didn't have a lot of direct experience with Judges Guild products. Aside from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, I can probably count the number of JG releases I owned or used on one hand. Partly that's because I was an unrepentant TSR fanboy and looked askance at third-party products, even those that were "approved for use with Dungeons & Dragons," as Judges Guild's were. However, an equally important factor is that, for whatever reason, I rarely saw JG books for sale at the bookstores and hobby shops I frequented. They didn't stock Tegel Manor or City-State of the Invincible Overlord at Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, or Kay-Bee Toys, all of which were my regular sources for RPG materials, the end result of which is that it would be years before I saw many of the products that are now considered classics by connoisseurs of old school roleplaying games.

In the years since, I've therefore made a point of trying to hunt down and read many of the Judges Guild releases which I've seen people discuss online, especially those about which the discussion is largely positive, like Verbosh. Originally published in 1979, Verbosh is an 80-page supplement by Paul Nevins and Bill Faust, two names I do not otherwise recognize. A name I do recognize, however, is Kevin Siembieda, who provides all the interior artwork for this product (the cover is by someone called Bob Hadley), as well as its maps. Siembieda, of course, is the co-founder of Palladium Games and designer of the eponymous The Palladium Role-Playing Game. This was still fairly early in his career, so these illustrations are still amateurish in my opinion, but a step above the Judges Guild standard.

In addition to being the name of this book, Verbosh is also the collective name for a village and fortification nestled along the banks of a river known "the Great Source." Long ago, the fortification was built by a self-styled lord, who named the place after himself. His descendants – all also named Verbosh – inherited his penchant for grandiosity and eventually styled themselves kings. Though some of them achieved genuinely great things, their line eventually "went steadily down hill," according to the text. The latest Verbosh (thirty-first of his line, who call himself "the Magnificent") has been reduced to running a shop that sells meaningless titles of nobility.

Both the village and the fortification are described through a series of keyed locations, in addition to random encounters for daytime and night. Nearly all these locations are shops or services, like an inn, an armorer, or a bakery. Each has an NPC proprietor, with D&D stats and information about his history and personality. Tonally, these descriptions are somewhat whimsical, or at least not entirely serious. For example, the baker is a hobbit who "will bake anything, but it is likely to be poor. His bread is like insulation (and is often used for the purpose)." Of course, the baker is also a polymorphed copper dragon "who thinks his baking is actually good." One's reaction to this reaction is a pretty good gauge of whether you'll like much of the content of Verbosh, which is filled with other examples of such things (e.g. Talc of Umpowder, a blacksmith)

Beneath the fortification is a three-level dungeon to explore. Also nearby is a shipwreck that serves as the basis for an underwater adventure. Taken together, this provides plenty to do for characters who've just arrived in the area. Many of the NPCs in Verbosh also have agendas of their own and can easily become sources of both rumors and employment. Some of these agendas point away from Verbosh itself and toward the wilderness outside the settlement. Naturally, said wilderness is filled with lots of encounters of varying complexity and difficulty. This includes another fortified town/castle named Warrenberg, which itself has a large number of NPCs and locales of a sort similar to those found in Verbosh. Taken together, Verbosh presents lots of opportunities for adventure.

As I said at the beginning of this post, my experience with Judges Guild back in the day was very limited. Viewing them now, what strikes me as how inconsistent their quality was, as well as how amateurish its production values were. This is especially true when compared to TSR's own offerings. At the same time, the better JG books offer the referee a huge amount of raw material from which to work. One might not wish to use any of the books as written, but, as foundations on which to build one's own scenarios, they can be quite good. That's certainly true of Verbosh in my opinion. The sheer magnitude of material in its 80 pages – maps, NPCs, rumors, encounters, and more – is staggering. Yes, a lot of it is much more tongue-in-cheek than I, as a notorious stick in the mud, would like, but it's very easy to ignore, for instance, Federico Fellini's Fast Food business if, like me, you find it a bit silly and use the rest with little trouble.


  1. This was the only JG product I owned for D&D as an actual kid. I had a couple of other things from them - Nightmare Maze of Jigresh for EPT, and a Runequest adventure whose name eludes me. I saw other stuff in stores occasionally but their shoddy quality meant they were usually falling apart from shelf wear and handling. That limited exposure back in the day was enough to keep me from buying anything else from the company for years, and what little I've grabbed in garage sale bundles since were even less impressive. Amateurish and inconsistent is being polite about their output, and Verbosh is supposed to be one of the better efforts. I shudder to think what the bad stuff was like.

    Really says a lot that some of Kevin's earliest, least polished art was still well above the norm for JG products.

  2. Your experience with Judges Guild products basically mirrors my own; the quality is all over the place. I've used lots of it in my own rpg campaigns over the years, but never as written. It's always piecemeal, little bits here and there, more as inspiration and/or starting points for my own stuff to build on it.

  3. I adore Verbosh, it is a great self contained campaign setting. Perfect for a campaign where you want minimal complexity and no desire for a grand, sweeping, world-changing campaign.

    That said, yes, it definitely has more than it's share of punny business, but that was par for course back in the day. I've modified and expanded it over the years, much as I did with the Wilderlands, using the published work as a framework on which to hang my own developments.

    Which is really all that any of the Judges Guild products were designed to do back in the day. They were never intended to provide all the answers, unlike today's micromanaged campaign settings that are one step from being a campaign railroad. They were designed to evoke inspiration, not replace creativity.

  4. I still have trouble taking their stuff seriously....except for Jaquays' material.

  5. Many of the Judges Guild Products were written by third party authors. As such they vary greatly in quality of writing. Their publishing model of a subscription producing a module once a month required a large quantity of submissions.

  6. I generally like JG stuff, but I doubt I will ever own a copy of this work. but I did enjoy going back and reading your old reviews, so there is that.

  7. As a kid I owned Citadel of Fire and found it absolutely enthralling, to an extent that I'm sure has little to do with the objective quality and much to do with the way it represented my beginning experiences with D&D. I do recall, though, puzzling over the unclear relation between the art and the module contents.