Tuesday, March 09, 2010


It's perhaps a bit unusual, that I like a game called Dungeons & Dragons, probably more than (or at least as much as) any other roleplaying game, and yet I have no interest whatsoever in dungeons or dragons. My taste in fantasy is strongly influenced by the type of fantasy I was reading as a kid when I came across D&D, and that means stuff like that covered in Cityscape. The urban environment as a dangerous place of adventure, as opposed to a stop-off between adventures, is a key component of much of the early fantasy that I read. With the exception of Tolkien, of course. When Conan is in a city, he's sneaking into some wizard's tower, fighting organized crime in the Maul, stealing into a nobleman's keep to steal his riches and the love of his bored and unsatisfied wives. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are perhaps the most iconic city-fantasy protagonists, and their taking on of thieves guilds, were-rats, zombies and more in the streets of Lankhmar, are iconic fantasy moments. So, to me, gaming in a city always felt natural. Felt more natural, frankly, than going to some out of the way "dungeon" and exploring it just because it was there and might have treasure and bizarre nonsensical monsters in it.

This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's read my blog in the past. I've blogged about, among other things, how much I enjoy the Freeport setting, which is an urban wretched hive of scum and villainy. My reviews of city-related products, like Paizo's Absalom or Katapesh books, or Wizards' Sharn book, or Privateer's Five Fingers book, etc. show that not only do I have a lot of city-related sourcebooks, but that I tend to like them and find good material to steal in all of them. So, my expectation for an environmental book dedicated to the city was high.

Sadly, the first thing one notices is that this book is only about 70% of the size of earlier environment books like Sandstorm, Frostburn or Stormwrack. I'm not sure why this change in format, but I think that the city environment, if anything, needed more coverage than those earlier books got, and given the often lackluster material found in Sandstorm and Frostburn, I hoped it would be good stuff.

What I should have anticipated is that for someone (like me) who's already quite used to running and playing in urban campaigns, the advice in Cityscape is often fairly shallow and obvious. I think this would be a better book to someone who's never done that kind of campaign and is rooted in the "classic" D&D paradigm, but that's not me. The first section of the book is given over to describing several kinds of cities and city neighborhoods, but as I said, most of it was fairly obvious. The best thing about this section, probably, is the fact that it includes at least half a dozen good city maps that you can use as needed. I like a good city map as a play aid, and between this, the Paizo Cities of Golarion, and the Wheel of Time book I have, not to mention several stand-alone products, I've got dozens to choose from when I want to whip out a map and model a city. The descriptions of the cities themselves and their neighborhoods were, on the other hand, fairly prosaic and easily anticipated. I.e., I could easily have come up with this stuff myself without putting too much effort into it.

The authors rightly point out that one way to make the game more interesting and take advantage of the environment, is to have a lot of intrigue. To facilitate this, they talked in general terms about a bunch of different organizations that cities could sport, from evil cults to domineering religions, to friendly religions, to thieves guilds, to slavers guilds, to craft and trades guilds, to royal houses, to... well, there's a lot of them. Organizations that PCs might want to belong to, organizations that the PCs might want to oppose and organizations that just add color.

However... the book talks about them in general terms. It would have been really nice had the book been the same length as the previous environmental books, and actually fleshed out some of these groups as examples. I really like the organization "stat block" that a lot of the 3.5 books have, and some of those specific organizations are really interesting and useable. Having the guilds described in general terms, and then frankly making many of them kinda boring, like craft guilds and stuff, was not nearly as useful as having a list of sample ready-to-roll organizations would have been. That was one of (the few) things that I really liked about the Urban Arcana sourcebook for d20 Modern; it came with dozens of organizations ready to go. Here, we only get them in general terms.

Then there's some discussion about how to run city games, or the "urban crawl" as it's called. This advice is less than spectacular; it feels like baby-steps away from dungeon-crawling as opposed to really embracing the potential of an urban themed campaign. In fact, in general, I thought that was the major weakness of the book; overall it really struggled to break away from what the authors assume to be the "classic" D&D paradigm. To point to another example that I was amused by repeatedly, slavers were repeatedly painted as the ultimate evil; whereas assassins guilds only got a brief mention. D&D isn't always "heroic" high fantasy dungeoncrawling. I've made a career of shades of gray sword & sorcery intrigue games in my GMing days. This book really failed to take advantage of exactly the kind of source material, tone and themes that fantasy was built on back in the days of the pulp magazines, which is perhaps a commentary on how disassociated from our fantasy roots modern fantasy fans have grown.

At the end, I'm left (again) a little bit underwhelmed with this, the third now, environmental book that I've read. I've also got Stormwrack and I'll be reading and reviewing it soon, but I have no interest in picking up Dungeonscape, so I'll probably give that one a miss. In general for all of them, though, the content has been generic, uninspired, and frankly kinda obvious. I pine, I guess, for the D&D products that push the boundaries a little bit, that come up with ideas that I couldn't (or at least didn't) already come up with on my own. Cityscape really isn't that product, and to be fair to it, I don't think it was ever meant to be. It was meant to be, as I said earlier, baby-steps away from the "classic" dungeoncrawling paradigm, and in that regard it succeeds. It just so happens that I wish it could have been so much more.

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