Friday, May 18, 2012

Citybook V: Sideshow: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Sourcebook for any fantasy rpg detailing the elements of an exotic and isolated city quarter populated by non-humans.

STILL SEGREGATING ’CAUSE WE INSECTS ARE TOO PROUD
The nature, variety, and density of non-human races strongly defines a fantasy setting. There’s the grab-bag approach of Forgotten Realms or Eberron with everything under the sun; the more limited but deeper approach of Earthdawn or Sundered Skies; and the exclusively human approach of Pendragon or Legends of Anglerre (for one of the settings). Citybook V: Sideshow can present something of a problem for some campaigns. More than most of the other sourcebooks, it relies on some premises about the campaign world. It is possible to shift some of the races and details, but how much work does that require of the GM and how much is lost in the translation?

Sideshow has a strong concept. Within the City, a section has become a kind of ghetto. I don’t think the book ever uses that loaded term, but it applies in the most literal definition. The most exotic and strange have been forced or dedicated to gather in a neighborhood more tolerant or at least further away from oppression and prejudices of the majority. Given that we know historically like communities and cultures clustered together within cities, especially foreign communities, Sideshow makes sense. And the term, Sideshow, loaded with unpleasant connotations has the right weight to it. This citybook is the most cohesive and thematic of the entire series. On the negative side it means that entries and ideas can be highly entangled and harder to pull out for individual use. On the positive side it creates a compelling atmosphere and deepens the individual entries.
ON CITYBOOKS 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.
PRESENTATION
Citybook V generally follows the same layout and design the series has established. The 96-page perfect bound book sticks with a clean two-column layout. It actually looks better here than in the earliest volumes. Once again the book uses a stable of artists rather than a single illustrator. Most of these are really excellent- especially Sandy Schreiber’s work. There are a few weaker images, including Ruth Thompson’s work. Paul Jacquays paints an interesting, if a little busy, cover for the book. He also returns as editor and the book’s once again listed as produced by the Jacquays Design Studio for Flying Buffalo. Eighteen authors contribute to create the 19 establishments of the book, including John Nephewand Lawrence Watt-Evans. The editors done solid work connecting the establishments and most of the details don’t seem forced. Anthology books can have wildly divergent tones, but nothing feels out of place here.

CONTENTS
The book’s split into three major sections, each with a forward page. It switches up the usual order a little bit, but it makes sense. The concepts set up in "Organizations & Individuals" impact the rest of the material.

Organizations & Individuals: The Pack; The Old Man of the City; The Sliming Path; Terrkot’s People; The Gaggle.
Personal Services: Hilkin’s Specialities & Esoterica; The Blue Maid; Riversent; Enefene; Brumar’s Workshop; Spittin’ Image; The Face Place; Smilin’ Al Crum’s Sideshow Tours; Knight’s Cranial Hospitaler; Nadorix’s Necropolis; Komtoi’s Cartage & Caravansary
Food, Lodging & Entertainment: The Panther Club; The Bottomless Keg; The Silver Pelt

A one-page general introduction sets up the basic concepts of the non-human sideshow as well as the logic behind some of the book’s design decisions. The next four pages lay out the generic guidelines and map keys for the book. Most interestingly we get a page discussing the themes of the Citybook. Some of these are alternate takes on what appears later (which seems odd) while others help orient the reader to the threads running through the book.

HIGHLIGHTS
Spoilers potentially here.

When I look at the entries I notice they break into two types. On the one hand, you have concepts that really work with the idea of the non-human nature of the characters. Not just that they are non-human, but the specifics of their culture, racial identity, strengths and limitations. On the other hand, you have entries where you could easily change out the characters or even make them human and the concept would remain the same. For example, The Bottomless Keg, could easily have a different mix of races among the NPCs there. There’s only one detail- that the husband and wife proprietors come from traditionally opposed races- that relies on that. Otherwise, it is actually a fairly mundane establishment…well, except for one of the characters being a secretly disguised powerful wizard. AGAIN. At this point I have to wonder if this is an inside joke for the Citybook series, as everyone so far has had a hidden legendarily powerful evil or formerly evil wizard.

I think generally the entries which embrace the specifics of the races their dealing with are stronger. However there’s something good in just about everything in this book. Even the weakest entry got me thinking of a couple of adventures I could build from it. I’d say the three that work least for me would be The Bottomless Keg I mentioned above, for feeling too generic- Brumar’s Workshop shares this problem. The Panther Club feels focused on the description of a new fantasy race, rather than providing an interesting establishment. Instead the Club feels like a generic way to show it off. Finally The Silver Pelt ends up a little too obvious. The idea of a werewolf butcher is a cool one, especially for exotic meats. However the presentation is unsubtle. The NPCs have the last name “Silver” and they look human although hey operate in Sideshow, etc. I should also mention that the book goes heavier on the connections than the earlier volumes, but GMs should still be able to use the entries individually.

The Sliming Path by John Nephew is one of the best. It presents a non-human revolutionary group. The membership of that group and their methodology present an interesting challenge for players. You could shift that organization or even parts of it just slightly to create serious dilemmas for the PCs. I like that the key members all have very different sense of what a non-human revolution means. They can work together now, but in when you look closely they have ultimately incompatible philosophies. That will lead to interesting choices down the road.

I also really like The Pack, a criminal guild suited to the strange environs of Sideshow. They offer a unique adversary and one requiring serious problem solving on the part of the players. The NPCs given are interesting, and the scenario hooks in this entry offer unique adventures.

There are so many other really strong pieces in this one- many that I’ve used with great success: Spittin’ Image, Knight’s Cranial Hospitaler, Hilkin’s Specialities & Esoterica…pretty much every one I haven’t mentioned has awesome ideas in it. But the best concept in this book, for me, is the Old Man of the City. That’s a great adversary, with complex motivations and easily tied into many plots. I actually used him more as an abstract force in my campaign (personified in another NPC, Nadoriz from Nadorix’s Necropolis). Essentially there’s an immortal figure cursed to live in the city until it finally is destroyed. The Old Man works to bring terror and destruction here, but often his plans have the opposite effect. Still he can cause some damage, making him a serious threat. With some tweaks to suit my campaigns, he became a fixture in many plots I ran.

OVERALL
Citybook V: Sideshow is one of the best of the series, and one of my favorite generic fantasy supplements. I love the ideas here. Many of them can be tweaked and repurposed for different settings, or with slightly changed races. Some of them can’t be, but mostly because they have such of strong idea to them. I really enjoy this book. If you’re running a fantasy campaign which includes a significant non-human population, you'll find this useful.