Thursday, November 18, 2010

City of Strangers

My reading habits have really taken a beating lately (which is unfortunate, because I've got some stuff on loan that I really need to read and get back to it's original owner) and I feel like many times in the last few posts that I've made with the book review label I've also included the excuse that the book took me a lot longer to read than I anticipated, I've been struggling with it for some time, yadda yadda yadda. So, rather than bore you with a repeat performance, let me just jump directly into this review of James L. Sutter's Pathfinder setting book City of Strangers and if it took a while to read and wasn't exactly riveting my attention from start to finish, I'll let the review body itself speak to that.

I was initially quite excited about this product as it seems to be the kind of book that I really quite like in RPGiana; a setting book that describes a fantasy urban locale, and a rather unusual one for that matter. Not only do I really love urban gaming (as I've mentioned here many times in various posts over the years) but I also love unusual settings; ones that don't feel cliched or "lazily" developed. Kaer Maga, the so-called "City of Strangers" itself, certainly seemed to fit the bill, with back cover and online blurbs referencing unusual architecture, troll fortune tellers who do anthropomancy on their own innards ('coz they can heal the wounds from doing so, of course), a foreign cult of people who sew their lips together, blood mages that swell their bodies with blood and wear leeches to control blood flow, and a fair bit of necromancy made Kaer Maga certainly sound more exotic than most of the other products I have.

In general, I have three main complaints about the product. For some, these will be strengths, not weaknesses, but I didn't like them, and they all three reduced the utility of the product to me personally.

1) In general, I haven't seen much of this in Paizo products, but more recently I've detected a whiff of it in some of their most recent ones (and I complained about it a bit in my Sargava review as well as in my Heart of the Jungle review): the book seems to have an overarching social engineering vibe that is occasionally jarring and intrudes on my suspension of disbelief. Some of that may simply be a facile interpretation of the concept; Kaer Maga, while once a prison city under the rule of the Runelords of ancient Thassilonia, evolved into something more like the cities of refuge referenced by the ancient Hebrews of Judah and Israel, except much more cosmopolitan. This in turn evolved in Sutter's hands into a place where anyone weird, who reveled in his or her weirdness, could come and be weird with a bunch of other weirdos without judgement. This also developed strong overtones of Kaer Maga being this bohemian and social revolutionary paradise. Granted, certain districts of Kaer Maga are specifically and overtly the bohemian and social revolutionary paradises, but the entire city takes on much of that vibe. Of course, there's also the exception: one district is a caricature of a runaway home owner's association gone bad, for instance.

Frankly, any time that portions of the book start to become obvious parallels to the author's actual political and social beliefs, I get pretty turned off--even when I share those beliefs. But obviously much moreso when I don't. Frequently while reading City of Strangers I found myself rolling my eyes and one or another obvious metaphor. And if I can get those obvious metaphors, then so can my players, and suddenly the game would be interrupted by us mocking the obvious metaphor. I can't actually use this in my game, regardless of the philosophy it espouses, if it's clearly a caricature of something we are actually familiar with. So... bad form there. However, I didn't really ever think I was going to use Kaer Maga exactly as written very much anyway, so how well does it work as a sourcebook that can be mined for use in other contexts?

2) Well, actually, less of it is portable than I would have thought. The defining high concept of the city as this kind of fantasy Burning Man made permanent was so strongly suffused through many of the details that it would be more work than it was worth to adapt them to other uses in many ways. This invalidates large chunks of the book for this purpose, anyway, and large other chunks fall victim to what I call the China Miéville syndrome--it meanders into gratuitously weird and edgy and ultimately serves no purpose other than to establish the work as weird and edgy. The troll augurs suffer a bit from this syndrome, since they are otherwise lightly treated and appear to be relatively unimportant to the setting overall, and the fact that they do anthropomancy with their own bodies doesn't serve any purpose other than to hopefully make the more squeemish players go "Ewww." So do the Sweettalkers, who while colorful otherwise play little to no role in the city overall. The blood-mages are almost an afterthought, with no discussion of how they're important locally or why they are so strongly associated with this locale in the first place. The same can even be said of the undead in Ankar-Te. In general, these colorful ideas are not carried through--they don't serve any purpose other than color. Why do these groups do these things, and what are the implications to the bigger picture at large? These questions are, sadly, left for the most part unaddressed.

Color for its own sake isn't too hard to come up with. Integrating that color into a greater tapestry is a much more fulfilling and useful function for a sourcebook. The Scarred Lands sourcebook Hollowfaust is a great example of an exotic concept that's explored, not just thrown up there as a "look how exotic a concept I am!" banner. City of Strangers is not. Not only that, the color just really doesn't seem to fit here; there's no explanation for how and where all this color comes from. Little of it claims to be homegrown local stuff, but nowhere else nearby is there any hint of original populations from which weird groups like, say, the Sweettalkers would originate. The whole place feels really disconnected with the setting overall.

3) After spending about three fourths of its bulk discussing the city and what it was all about, the last portion of the book was a rather jarring and cliched exercise in exploring "the dungeons below the city" which are, predictably, much larger and more expansive than the city itself. I like that there's vague hints of almost Lovecraftian horrors lurking in corners of these dungeons, but then again... it's dungeons under the city. Granted, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is, essentially, Dungeons & Dragons, and I recognize that this kind of thing not only is not uncommon, but is exactly what some players are looking for. I find the entire concept cliché and unrealisticially silly to boot. Plus, it's so lightly detailed here that I'm not entirely sure what you'd do with it anyway.

My overall impression of the book is that it's something that I'm unwilling to use as is, most likely, and that less of it than I hoped is portable. I was much more disappointed in this book than I hoped to be. Next up on my list is the shorter Orcs of Golarion, then I may drop RPG books for a while to focus on finishing Guards of Haven so I can read Jim Butcher's Side Jobs before I have to give that back to the friend of mine who let me borrow it, and Andy McDermott's The Hunt for Atlantis before I have to send that back through ILL.

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