Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Citybook III: Deadly Nightside: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook detailing people, organizations and establishments for the more dangerous sections of a city, useable with most fantasy rpgs.

Jathan Alley.

That’s the phrase our group uses to describe the bad parts of any city. It’s named in honor of the party thief who never bought any skill with Streetwise and yet used to go and wander off by himself to “stir up trouble” in town. Invariably his bloodied body would turn up on the party’s doorstep later.

It points at one of the factors that makes me really love a good urban setting, especially for a fantasy campaign. If my group found themselves hip-deep in a dungeon crawl and I suggested that perhaps they might split up…well, that would never fly. They would stick together like glue, backing each other up. But if I can get them into town, they will fly in every direction- going off to take care of business, follow up on clues, talk to important NPCs. Alone. Without any back-up. Not realizing social dangers can be just as potent as physical ones.

Citybook III: Deadly Nightside covers the darker corners of fantasy cities. And I expect the areas PCs will most likely be interacting with. I’m reminded of Lanhkmar and Sanctuary, both dangerous places with no true “good” sections. CB III hits its mark and offers plenty of trouble for your players. It also takes a slight turn to offer a more connected Citybook, with strong plot ties between the various entries.
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.
My new copy of CB III is the second printing- with a slicker, more flexible cover. The first printing had stiffer cardstock and unless I’m really mistaken, a slightly expanded layout. The second printing/edition(?) seems to have condensed the introductory elements. The layout remains mostly the same as the previous entries in the series- two columns, with small margins and text abutting illustrations tightly. Strangely the book gives up on the sans-serif font used in the first two in favor of a slightly smaller serif font that looks like Times. Liz Danforth provides an ok cover illustration but dynamite interior illustrations. She opts for all inked and dark line images instead greyscale figures. These reproduce better and look awesome. Randall G Kuipers supplies the maps for the second edition. These are generally good, except that the grey graph paper background on these are printed darkly, making them more difficulty to read. Mike Stackpole returns as sole editor of this 96-page volume. Sixteen authors offer 18 establishments. Some are gaming greats, like Allen Varney, Warren Spector and James Peters. Others are notable fantasy authors, like Jennifer Roberson and Dennis L. McKiernan.

Citybook III forgoes the section divisions of the first two volumes. Although the table of contents does divide the book into three parts, these lack overview pages dividing them. This volume opens with a really tight introduction, in incredibly tiny text. It points out a new tact this book takes- more explicit and numerous connections, references, and overlaps between establishments. That actually makes the book feel more coherent, and doesn’t detract at all from the usefulness. GMs who want to just use a single business will find it easy to pull one out. But GMs using more of them will discover value added content in these ties. Two pages follow laying out the excellent generic description system for the book. Strangely the map key pages of the previous volumes don’t appear here. I have to wonder if that’s a change with the second edition.

The Good: The Singing Frog Sanctuary; The Prodigal’s Lantern Mission; Karig the Stalker; The Bloodmoon School; Sagacity; The Cock and Bull Gaming Club; Nightside Inferior Court; The Sewers; The Well of Justice
…The Bad: The Haansfolk; The Undercity; The Big Fish Gang; The House of Infinite Dreams
…and the Deadly: The Steel Man; Dimdaniel’s Gate; The Yellow Poppy; Sutaka’s Beasts and Beauties; The Shadow Riders

Spoilers potentially here.
This book offers a great diversity of types than the previous two, or at least less “classic” shops and businesses. Several are groups and organizations operating in this part of the city- power brokers and forces the players could easily come into contact with. That allows for the awesome device where the players cross an individual only discover they’re tied to a much more dangerous force. I’ve used most of the entries from this book across several campaigns, with some reappearing in different forms. Nearly everyone has great hooks and plot elements. In the past I’ve found the presentation of the inns and taverns a little bland. However The Singing Frog Sanctuary presented here works. It has great and rich NPCs, unusual entertainments and a few odd details that give it enormous character. I’m hard pressed to choose a weakest entry. Perhaps the The Cock and Bull Gaming Club and The Shadow Riders, neither of which I’ve used for a game yet.

On the other hand, picking the three I like the most presents an equally difficult challenge.

The Bloodmoon School offers a neat place for combat training. Fighters, duelists, rogues and the like can be entertained and hooked by offering them a kind of dojo. Even if you’ve not using detailed rules on training time, mentors and study, places like these give warrior characters a sense of place comparable to a Thieves Guild or Wizard’s School. The Bloodmoon School has some great hidden plot hooks. Players will obviously be intrigued by obvious strangeness of the school’s master Re’esh. His backstory could easily set up a whole campaign arc. If there’s any weakness to the entry, it comes from the return of the “hidden” evil wizard device. It works better here, but we’ve seen that a couple of times already in the series.

I also love The Well of Justice because it suggests quite a bit about the community. The vigilante justice served out by this group offers the PCs a force to ally or oppose in this part of their city. The complexity of the set up offers many plot ideas. I love the background and color developed here with “The Sackers” almost like a group of mysterious street-level supers. Of course how well that works may depend on the level of magic in your campaign. It also dovetails nicely with my favorite NPC in the book, Karig the Stalker, a bounty-hunter.

Finally The Steel Man is awesome. The author’s note says that Stackpole “produced this variation on the idea of an Assassins’ Guild because…he has a hard time imagining assassins tolerating the bureaucracy needed for a true Guild structure.” What we get it a deadly organization with a supernatural origin, operating by mundane means. The Steel Man and his people ought to be scary. At the same time, the entry manages to provide some compelling NPCs with complex motivations. When I used this in a game, I actually added a few Lovecraftian notes to this particular set up.

Again the editor manages to bring together a dynamite collection of material, useful for any GM doing a fantasy campaign with any amount of urban exploration. All the entries read well and the connections between them feel natural and unforced. This is one of the best of the Citybook series. It offers more gritty and street level material- further away from the high wizardry and the fantastic of some campaigns. But a great deal will still work with that. But generally there’s the feel of a of low-level o low-power game; at least a game where the players have to struggle for resources and mundane threats still offer them a challenge. In some level-based systems (Rolemaster, D&D 4e) players rise to a point in levels quickly where these kinds of issues might seem too prosaic. Citybook III: Deadly Nightside’s the perfect sourcebook for those who love a dark and dangerous urban labyrinth.


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