Thursday, August 16, 2012

RPG Review: "Vornheim: The Complete City Kit"

"Vast is Vornheim, The Grey Maze...but I'm not here to bore you with that."  With that, artist, writer, adult film performer and RPG addict Zak Smith placates any ADD types out there and gets right down to brass tacks.  He clearly believes that a good Game Master is mainly someone who can host a decent party.  Although Vornheim: The Complete City Kit isn't going to give you the origins, hair color and blood type of every clergy member in the Church of Tittivilla, it will give you the tools and inspiration to come up with this stuff on the fly.

In the past I've had Game Masters who act like failed novelists.  I remember back in university, a buddy of mine worked on a D&D adventure for a good week-and-a-half before we sat down to play.  Just a few hours into the session my character fell into a well and started to drown after failing several climb checks.  But the DM let me keep trying and trying over and over again until I finally got out.  In doing so he might as well have come out and told me: "Look, your character can't die!  He's pivotal to all the work I've been doing for the past ten days!"  Yeah, needless to say, I refused to play a follow-up session.

Anyone who's watched an episode of I Hit It With My Axe knows that Zak's gaming group is a pretty tough audience.  Satine Phoenix is a veteran gamer.  Connie's play style is decidedly wild card.  Mandy Morbid loves tactical problem solving and testing the boundaries of a sandbox world.  In addition to being supremely confident that her character is so good at sneaking that she should never be called upon to make a die roll, Frankie will often try and backstab anything with shoulder blades.  And Kimberly Kane's main motivation is to, well...hit it with her axe.  Translation: a strictly tethered, rules-heavy, story game ain't gonna cut the mustard with these gals.    

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit is the direct result of this.  As soon as you start reading the book (or if you've been following Playing D&D With Porn Stars) you'll soon realize that Zak's a pretty smart cookie who's clearly been doing this for awhile.  He's quite adept at quantifying gaming mechanics, delving into what makes for a good session and determining why so many other top-heavy RPG supplements (and city settings in particular) sit around collecting dust.

Smith makes every conceivable effort to ensure that Vornheim will never sit idle at your gaming table.  Literally every square inch of the book bears an evocative description, a cool drawing, an original monster or some sort of creatively juicy random table.  Hell, even the front and back covers allow you to generate hordes of animals, monsters, guards, adventurers, locations and multiple attacks with one simple throw of a four-sided die.

Of course, there's probably an entire horde of grognards out there blanching at the prospects of such boiled-down simplicity.  As a recovering rules lawyer, I had a hard time coming to grips with this myself.  But then I thought: What's more important for a good gaming experience?  Spending hours doing solitary world-building only to have your justifiably-willful players ignore what you've done?  Or, worse still, give into the temptation to railroad them down a narrative sluice with an creatively dull pitchfork?

As Zak himself says in the intro:

"Where's the prison?  If I wrote it down then you'd have to look it up, and Vornheim is still Vornheim no matter where you put (it)."      

For some people there aren't any obvious answers to the questions proposed above, but Smith certainly provides plenty of compelling reasons to try things his way.  Fortunately Zak also gives Axe fans just enough detail to feel as if they're cavorting around in the same sandbox whilst giving them express permission to customize things any way they want.  Indeed, his flash-sketches of the environs in and around Vorheim alone will provide plenty of fodder for a slew of new adventures.            

Fans of low fantasy should know right away that vanilla humanity in Vornheim is kinda like the frightened, huddled equivalent of Squee from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.  The city of Osc Leth alone is partly ruled by six monstrous advisors, each one more loathsome then the last.  It's almost as if the more Lovecraftian denizens of the AD&D Monster Manual legally gained authority through political channels and are now poised to stick it to humanity by law instead of claw.

Here are some observations I made while reading through the book:

  • Zak uses his considerable artistic skills to illustrate the elaborately schizophrenic architecture of Vornheim such as The Palace Massive.  Although these are some pretty cool and elaborate-looking constructs, I still have no sweet clue where you're supposed to stable your poor horse in the Eminent Cathedral.
  • RE: the section titled "Some People, Places, Things and Ideas in Vornheim" Smith is quick to point out that "it doesn't say 'Important People, Places, Things and Ideas in Vornheim' because few of them are indispensable to the character of the city".  Folks might grouse that some NPC's and monsters haven't been given stats, but I really subscribe to Zak's insistence that "there's no particular reason they couldn't be built to fit adventures for any level".  Because of this, I'm totally convinced that a first-level Zak Smith D&D game would be just as engaging as an adventure featuring characters at "name level".  
  • Smith exhibits exemplary writing chops, dishing up evocative passages like: "accusations and small conspiracies metastasize and meld throughout Vornheim like shadows in torchlight."  Noice.  
  • The "Oddities and Superstitions" (pages 7-10) and "Law" (page 39) sections are certainly no weirder then what actual human history has served up over the years (I know for a fact that the "Day of Masks" celebration and trials by combat certainly had real-world antecedents).  Amidst Zak's rogues gallery of original monsters, Axe fans will be thrilled to see details on the Wyvern in the Well as well as the uber-creepy homunculi assassin twins known only as The Chain.    
  • Zak's approach is put into practice in the "House of the Medusa" mini-adventure.  To give players pause for thought he writes: "if the myths are true, about one-twelfth of the of the stone on the planet should revert to flesh upon (the Medusa's) death."  Although you'd be hard-pressed to interpret this literally, throw-away details like that really had my imagination percolating up an original adventure.  What if a Medusa actually made her lair partially out of the stone bodies of her victims?  If she were killed, the resulting overhead rain of flesh and stone would certainly serve as a nice final "fuck you" to her attackers! 
  • The author describes "The Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng" as "a strategic cat-and-mouse game where the GM has control of several cats".  Conveniently, the adventure scales in difficulty according to how much information you're willing to dole out to your players before they venture inside.  Once again, Smith isn't content to let such an exotic place by ruled by some boring generic wizard.  In fact, even veteran dungeon crawlers will be hard-pressed to ascertain the identity of the zoo's true overlord.
  • Zak wisely populates the Zoo with abominations of his own design, including a Xortoise, a Vampire Monkey, a Candelabraxian (?) Peryton and the infamous Flailceratops.  These gruesome unknowns will completely horrify new players and also flummox veteran adventurers who've killed more orcs, goblins and kobolds then Mitt Romney's had hot meals.  Speaking of Romney, my favorite creature description is the Demonic Fly, which is "dumb and vicious but has an intricate knowledge of politics".  
  • "The Library of Zorlac" adventure and the "Rules for Libraries" on page 41 finally gives players a motivation to collect books.  Although ideally designed for players from Level four to seven, the difficulty can be tweaked by "how clever, aggressive and co-ordinated the NPC's are".  In deliberate contrast to the previous two quests, the Library is positively rife with mind-bending puzzles, many of which have to be solved in order to move from room to room.  The puzzles are pretty inventive and a few of them are downright nefarious.  
  • Again Zak serves up a veritable menagerie of loopy librarians and bizarro creatures, chief amongst them being the Dividing Demon who can take control of the PC's in a very unconventional manner.  To balance out the creature's considerable power, Zak declares that "the demon can only inhabit rooms with an even number of living creatures", which almost single-handedly justifies the book's "Superstitions" section back on page nine.  Oh, and librarian Krask's special attack is as nauseating as it is surprising. 
  • The Player Commentaries are a real treat and had me pining for the yet-to-be-released episodes of I Hit It With My Axe.  Connie provides my favorite comment RE: The Chain: "it really made me uneasy and unhappy and disturbed and displeased and seemed really hard to likes things that are hard to kill."         
  • In yet another example of Smith thinking outside the box, he proposes a very simple but elegant  method of generating city neighborhoods while in-game.  He then goes on to explain: "creating a game supplement which goes into too much detail...forces the GM to memorize names and distinctions invented by someone else before feeling comfortable enough with the setting to use it."  This is probably why I've always eschewed vast city settings like Ptolus in lieu of slapping together small towns with sketchy descriptions of buildings and residents.  The tools provided by Smith actually give Game Masters the ability to improvise a new city visit with tremendous ease and confidence.  The same can be said for Zak's lightning-bolt-fast Urbancrawl Rules and Floorplan Shortcuts.  Bottom line is: if you read this stuff you're gonna get excited and dare yourself to run a by-the-seat-of- your-pants style adventure as well.     
  • Although I prefer playing out "Gather Information" and/or "Streetwise" checks as they're rolled (thus slowly building up a stable of contacts for the players), Zak suggests that the PC's should already have a small handful of connections in any given city so long as they've lived there for more then a month.  This certainly gives players the ability to role play as amateur gumshoes right off the bat.
  • I'd love to invoke the Chase Rules to watch my PC's try and avoid collision with an overweight vicar.  
  • The Item Cost Shortcut is proof positive that Zak is definitely operating on a different level then the rest of us.  In those instances when you really don't want to play out shopping trips or research item costs, Zak breaks every conceivable item down to a penny / nickel / dime / quarter / dollar scheme with the exact price set at "five gp per syllable".  Since a bullseye lantern should certainly cost more then a plain ol' vanilla lantern this actually works surprisingly well.  
  • In "God's Chess" an actual game of chess between the GM and a player can have lingering, over-arching influence on the campaign's narrative.  Frankly I think this is a brilliant way to show the PCs they're just one cog in a much larger machine whilst also giving them a hand in word-building.  
  • Then there are a slew of wildly inventive random tables which provide harried GM's with instant adventure hooks while giving players a collective ulcer.  As Smith opines: "There are times when the GM saying 'Oh, wait, I have a table for that...' can create far more dramatic tension then any dragon or lizard man."  Say on, brotha.  
  • Zak's "City NPC Tables" don't just give us a name (say Sasha of Nexis) and profession (City Militia Chief).  With a couple of quick rolls, we can also deduce that Lady Sasha is inherently shiftless, is an inordinate fan of public executions and once had her palanquin tipped over by a lawyer secretly nicknamed Orrik the Liar.  Man, even rolling that up was fun!  
  • The Games listed under the random Tavern Table quickly makes you forget about such innocuous fare as "Three Dragon Ante" and "Knucklebones".  

If convention is the greatest enemy of RPG creativity, then Vornheim: The Complete City Kit is the Bible for this approach.  I plan on running an olde-skool sandboxian one-shot D&D game soon and I can't wait to have this by my side at the table.  The beautiful thing is, Smith is clearly a fan of many different RPG genres and it really wouldn't be too difficult to adapt many of Vornheim's philosophies to horror, western or sci-fi gaming.  We just need a pair of follow-up kits for wilderness adventures and dungeon-crawls (hint, hint!).    

Honestly, I really do believe that Vornheim was written completely in step with Tom Moldvay's sage advice:

"No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.  The important thing is to enjoy the adventure."

And let me tell you, there's plenty of adventure to be had here.

With its unbridled creativity, evocative artwork and liberating philosophies, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit is certainly one of the most practical and compulsively readable RPG supplements I've ever encountered.  It easily scores six pips outta six!

Looking to pick up a copy of Vornheim: The Complete City Kit?  I got mine from Noble Knight and experienced nothing but impeccable service.

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