Friday, May 11, 2012

Citybook IV: On the Road: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook detailing travel-related businesses, organizations and people for use with most fantasy rpg cities.

I’m always curious about the behind-the-scenes for various game lines. When I reviewed TSR’s Gazetteer series, you could see the influence of difference freelancers on the project. As opposed to the in-house lines, those products each had a unique character. You could also see attention shift away from the line in the final books, projects which could have been interesting with more time and attention. Citybook III came out in 1987, but Citybook IV: On the Road didn’t appear until August of 1990. Given how fast companies turn out supplements and products these days, that gap looks enormous.

The other big change is in editorial direction. Mike Stackpole’s listed as a contributing editor, but the main force behind this book (and the next two in the series) is Paul Jaquays. In fact, the book's listed as produced by the Jacquays Design Studio. They also produced the Central Casting series for Flying Buffalo.

Citybook IV: On the Road’s a strange beast. It’s an interesting fantasy supplement, but isn’t exactly an urban sourcebook. It feels like they had a number of pieces lying around and tried to assemble a coherent whole. In doing so they moved a little away from the intent of the Citybooks. The supplement does offer a number of city-based establishments, but deals more with travel and transport between cities. Twenty-four pages of the 96-page book present NPCs. These full page write-ups are interesting, but they’re divorced from the focus on particularly urban materials. Citybook IV has a number of weaknesses, but the good and interesting outweigh the missteps. Mostly.
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.
Citybook IV follows the design of Citybook III, but the layout and spacing has been handled much better. The text remains dense, but touches have been added for clarity (better use of whitespace and image framing for example). Instead of a single artist, each entry has its own with several images. Most of these are strong (Richard Thomas, Liz Danforth) while others are weaker (Rick Lowry’s NPC illos in particular). But generally the art’s good and serves its purpose- GM’s wanting NPC images will be able to use much of what’s offered here. The cover image is also pretty fun. Fourteen authors contribute to the thirteen business entries and 23 NPCs. There’s more difference in tone and presentation in this book than the previous volumes. However, given the open nature of the theme, that makes sense.

The book breaks into two major sections. The first, “Travel Services,” presents entries similar to the previous volumes. The second “Wanderers” presents NPCs. Those establishments in the first section can be broken into two groups, those that offer city business (or at least which could be placed in a city) and those exclusively on the road. The NPCs are of various types- oddly not all of them “wanderers” as the section would suggest. All of them have secrets, making them more useful for the GM.

In City:
The Fellowship of Blessed Companions; The Halfling House; Dimensions Unlimited; Drakkonstar Express; Freehold Municipal Caravanserai; Dr. Gopp’s Emporium of Medicinal Wonders
On Road: Forgeway Inn #46; The River Drake; Vrigelian’s Roadside Shrine; Houndsteeth Border Garrison; The Rapids at Crumbling Skull Rock; Tsalini’s Stopover Station; The Great Dragon

There’s a one-page general introduction which explains some of the editorial decisions; one page by Mike Stackpole on roleplaying and working with cities; two pages explaining the generic description system for entries; two pages of map keys; and one page on travel in a fantasy world. That last article’s interesting, but doesn’t really develop the ideas. It raises some questions, but ultimately feels a little like filler or an attempt to justify the theme. For an interesting take on the topic, I’d recommend Jean Verdon’s Travel in the Middle Ages.

Spoilers potentially here.
Of the “In-City” Businesses, some don’t live up to their potential. They set up some ideas, but then there’s no twist to them. The concepts play out in the most obvious way (Dr. Gopp). That’s strange because most of the entries provide several scenario hooks. A GM will find some cool ideas, but will probably have to work hard to get them to work. The Fellowship of Blessed Companions, for example, has details I’ve not heard before, but I’m still not certain how you’d bring that to the table. It requires a particularly gullible PC to be played out the way the entry suggests. In my experience players are significantly paranoid, meaning you have to go another route.

My favorite of this set would be the Drakkonstar Express. I love the idea of a hobbit and his pet dragon carrying packages and messages across the land. The concept has charm, it isn’t overly complicated and it suggests a number of easy story entry points. I also like the Freehold Municipal Caravanserai, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It offers a few sketches of caravans, but it needed to go further in one of two directions. Provide the GM with more of a sense of how a caravan is handled in the city- trade groups, markets, lodging, etc. if not that, then more numerous and expansive examples of caravans and the characters involved. Citybook II: Port o’ Call handled this well with the different ship entries, the same could have been done here. A third section of just caravans could have been added (and some of the NPCs snipped).

Most of the “On Road” businesses have a pretty static location. They could be used with any city. They offer a few good ideas, though again a couple feel uninspired. But some offer much bigger ideas that tie into travel and to city affairs. My favorite (and probably my favorite from the book) is the Forgeway Inn #46. I love the idea of chain of inns- and the characters and plots behind this offer plenty of room for development. The Forge family became a major element in one of my campaigns. From just a few pages I was able to put together many sessions worth of adventures.

Finally, the NPCs. Hmmm…these are an incredibly mixed bag. Each is given a full page, and most entries have an illustration as well. There’s a public knowledge section, and then truth. Of course the “ancient evil wizard hidden/reborn/amnesiac” device returns. Each NPC also has a set of scenario ideas. Some of these characters could be found on the road, but many should really just be considered urban NPCs. I’d say of the 23, about eight stand out for me. I’ve used most of those in campaigns. A couple have really interesting scenario hooks. But many of them didn’t seem all that great to me. And a couple of them made me roll my eyes and almost forget there were good ones at all.

I’m torn about this book. I’ve used some of the ideas presented here with great success. But I really had to pick and choose to find those story elements. It feels weaker than the previous entries in coherence, theme and presentation. The NPCs could have been a book by itself (ala Masks). I also find it a little grating that several of the entries refer to elements and characters from the previous Citybooks. I didn’t mind when the previous books had internal connections between entries and stories. However, I don’t like the suggestion that the GM needs to go buy another book to get the most out of a generic sourcebook. While Citybook IV: On the Road isn’t the weakest of the series, gamers hunting down these books should probably start with some of the others.