Thursday, April 26, 2012

Citybook II: Port o' Call: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook presenting establishments for a port city, useable with most fantasy rpgs.

The first Citybook seems to have been intended as a one-off supplement, at least that’s the sense I have from the tone of the introduction. While the first volume took a classic or even generic approach to the establishments presented, Citybook II: Port o’ Call takes on a theme. We'll see that for the rest of the series, with each volume loosely tied to a central concept. So now we have a book of revolving around ports, ships and maritime atmosphere.

I’ve had a couple of significant port cities in my own fantasy campaigns. One of was a fantasy/steampunk version of Al Amarja set in Ierendi; the other a threshold city in a Dragon-Blooded campaign. Plus I’ve taken groups through ports in published settings (Corflu from Glorantha, Bozisha-Dar from MERP). I tried to offer some of the feel of a port, but I don’t think I delved into those elements deeply. I’ve run skyship campaigns, but I never a game where the players spent significant time on the ocean in a conventional ship. I've skipped on pirate or exploration games. Perhaps because of that, I’d dismissed Citybook II. I recall looking at it on the shelf and not buying it. When I decided to review this series, I had to hunt down copy of this. I quickly realized what a mistake it had been to skip this. Port o' Call is a solid entry in the series, with some idea I wish I’d seen years ago.

ON CITYBOOKS So what are the Citybooks? Each volume presents generic businesses, locations, and organizations for a fantasy city. The books aim to keep assumptions about the nature and form of fantasy pretty generic. Even when it deals with the cosmology of the magic, it maintains an open and adaptable approach. While the books are written without specific system mechanics, they offer guidelines for important details. Fighting, magic and so on are ranked to give the GM a clear sense of the relative power. Each entry is usually at least three pages, usually more. Most include clear maps and layouts with clear icons. An entry usually includes a basic description, layouts, NPC details and most usefully a set of scenario suggestions. NPC write ups focus on personalities and plot elements. Each book usually offers a set of links and threads to make it easy for the GM to connect different establishments together and create larger stories. These can easily be used or ignored. (from my Citybook I Review)
The 116-page perfect-bound supplement sticks mostly to the design of the first volume of the series. I have a copy of the first printing, with a more rigid cardboard stock than Flying Buffalo later used. They also print on the inside of the cover, adding two extra pages. Noted fantasy cover artist Carl Lundgren provides a well-executed but generic cover image. Liz Danforth returns with the majority of the art duties. Her art shows up better this time. In the last volume her soft pencil sketches washed out. Here they look sharp and she alternates between those and darker, inked images. Steven Crompton and Dave Helber assist on art duties, primarily as far as I can tell on diagrams and maps. It is worth noting that the art in the book offers a diversity of genders, body types, and ethnicities. It does a much better job of presenting a diverse place than many more modern books.

Layout and text design follow the same solid two-column approach as the last volume. However the text size has shrunk, so there’s much more material here. The maps look good, driving the text design in many places. Liz Danforth and Mike Stackpole edited the collection which has 22 entries, written by 21 contributors. Notably we have an establishment written by Dave Arneson and one by Charles de Lint.


As with the first volume, Citybook II divides the entries into sections:

Lodging and Entertainment: The Brass Orchid Tavern, The Longtooth Lounge, Macauley’s Gambling House
Personal Services: The Gateway, Doc and Sardin’s Warehouse, Sails of the Everpresent Journeywind, Ew’s Wood and Bone Shop, Cap’n Bill’s Bait Shop, Jensen’s Exchange, The Pearl Trader
Food Services: Robab’s Fish Market, The Scotch Woodcock Fishery
Community Services: The Customs House, The Temple of Aroshnavarapata, Van Iversen’s Lite, The Mariners Fellowship House
Ships and Boats: The Golden Princess, The Sweet Lady, The Narwhal
Chance Encounters: The Blue Light Gang, Garsen’s Tower, Artemus the Lucky Sea Captain

Beyond this, we get some general material. There’s an introduction which offers a nice overview of some of the common lingo for ships and sailing. It also suggests some ways in which the material can be used and adapted for different games. My favorite bit is where the editors respond to some apparent criticism of the earlier volumes- that the key symbols for beds and like on the maps weren’t period accurate or of the right scale. As the editors say “The reason for this convention is that what is on the map is a symbol, , and what has been chosen for the symbol is something that is easy to recognize.” Twenty years later and they would have been responding to this kind of trollish and idiotic criticism on their website…

The book lays out the map keys clearly. The generic system for describing NPCs remains the same and it works. The book lacks an index, but has a solid table of contents. One page at the end offers suggestions for connections across various establishments. One is a scenario that feels more than a little contrived. The other offers some interesting what ifs that set up events which have fallout across the different locales. I prefer the former.

Spoilers, potentially here.
Several of the entries in this book take a conventional approach and simply run with it. For example, Cap’n Bill’s Bait Shop pretty much is what it is- and I like that. The GM has room to make it deeper or more complicated, but I appreciate a place done as a kind of solid example of the lives of people in the city. In the other direction something like the Longtooth Lounge (by Arneson) throws a lot of different magical and political complications at the wall. It holds together, but just barely. There are a couple of places in the volume where I found myself thinking that X or Y detail could be cut and maintain the same tone. We have the fallback to the evil wizard in disguise/amnesia trick that we’ll see in just about every volume for example.

Four establishments remain in my mind after reading- keeping me thinking about how I might use those stories. Sails of the Everpresent Journeywind I didn’t expect much from, but the backstory on the owner is dark and tragic. Cursed with immortality until she completes a quest- at which point and even worse fate awaits her. And then there’s her wizard lover who has been trying to find a way to remove the curse. He’s kept himself alive through magic but has begun to grow senile. It really got to me. Their story loosely connects with The Temple of Aroshnavarapata. That’s another great bit, with some interesting divine twists. GMs will have to figure out how the cosmology of that fits with their world. I like the idea of a god who has lost his place trying to figure out a way back in- the same god who cursed the sailmaker.

Two other establishments have nice domestic stories which make for great NPCs. Van Iversen’s Lite offers some hooks into the political life of a city. It could be used as great motive, especially if the PCs befriended those characters. On the other hand, Robab’s Fish Market presents a domestic story crossed with a magical one. It didn’t go in the direction I expected. The various NPCs have strong desires and motivations, with some secrets they want to keep. The material’s structured well enough that I could immediately see several different ways to play that out. I should also note that the presentation of very different ships- along with their crew and deck plans is awesome. If fits with the book and presents a resource a GM could use over and over.

There are a couple of clunkers in this volume; The Pearl Trader, for example, really doesn’t go anywhere. But generally each entry offers at least one interesting story, and most offer more.

I love the movement of the Citybooks to themes. Connections appear within the various establishments, easily used or ignored. Citybook II: Port O’Call handles port setting well- shifting the material to match those needs (for example, presenting ships & crews). It holds together even better than the previous volume. Having so many different authors acts as a strength, rather than a weakness. Each brings solid and inventive ideas to the city. I also think the material here could easily be combined with the “Barran the Monster Hunter” scenario from one of my favorite modules, Strangers in Prax. Most of the material here could be added to any great port city setting from Waterdeep to Umbar to Marienburg.