Friday, 9 December 2011

review: vornheim the complete city kit

Metric: Snakes.  For reasons that become apparent, snakes are associated with the erudite in Vornheim.
DISCLAIMER: Based on a PDF copy.  This book was designed as a physical product and may have  lost some elements in translation.  That said, printing some pages out got around that pretty quickly so...
Overall: 4.5 snakes (a setting and a workbook with some killer apps)
Those who want to speed up prep for their games need this.  Urban games will also benefit mightily from this book, though it's inspirations are applicable to megadungeons as well.  A willingness to play fast & loose with rules as written is assumed.  While the layout and text could be less cluttered, the design principles, cartography and volume of quality content is tough to argue with.  Vornheim deserves it's status as one of the best RPG products currently out.

Content:  5 snakes (brilliant cover charts and tables, strong flavourful setting and encounters)
Vornheim is original.  The first section mentions things off-hand because they may be relevant to your game. The oddities are odd and the presence of spells like vile hound, locations like the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng and monsters like the flailceratops and plasmic ghoul make Vornheim atypical.  Superstitions and bizarre holidays are reminiscent of Gormenghast.  What makes this setting effective is how economic Zak is with the presence of the gods -  Vorn alone spawns a number of ceremonies and rituals, something that other campaigns may do well to emulate.  The baroque structures of Vornheim provide a good template for other cities and can be tweaked and modified by other GMs to fit their worlds.  Urbancrawl rules are a wonderful method for speedy generation of city streets and the floorplan shortcuts are quick ways to keep the game turning.  There are fistfuls of ideas in this book - some of which have been explored in Zak's blog. There are other sources credited as well, which is a nice touch.

Art & Layout: 4 snakes (awesome cartography, very clever cover charts, text chaotic useful)
Text layout is crabbed and claustrophobic, evocative but a bugger to speed-read, mercifully bolded text helps pick out the essentials.  The design elements and layout in other respects are very strong and Jim & Zak are to be commended.  Borders hold valuable chapter and page information which easily lets you move between sections.  PDF bookmarks work a treat and help navigation.  Artwork is rendered in Zak's style.  Some pieces have definition, the cover, the full page for House of the Medusa (p14) and flailceratops (p23) are cool.  The cartography is strong and Zak's style is intuitive, working in flat plane but arranged by floor (House of the Medusa), in orthographic perspective (Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng) reminiscent of a video game or vertical perspective (Library of Zorlac).  It's good stuff, using visual cues to ease dependence on keys.  Those used to pre-made floorplans may find this an issue.  That may not be the typical audience though...

In conclusion, this product stands alongside other excellent city sourcebooks.  Chaotic Useful is a relevant description.  Vornheim has fantastical elements that suit some campaigns perfectly.  New players may feel a bit intimidated but for those GMs who need a little fizz, this is a good present.  The support for 4th edition D&D was an unexpected bonus as well.  There are some bold ideas in here that have been excellently executed.  While some people may find it unpolished, the same argument could be made about prog rock vs. punk rock.  I may not know art, but I know what I like and I like this.  As a first album, it's good - the second one is the real test I hear...

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