Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Citybook VII: King's River Bridge: RPG Items I Don't Like

WHAT IS IT?
Sourcebook detailing people and establishments surrounding a bridge in a generic fantasy city. Intended for use with any FRPG.

SERIES WILL PASS YOU BY
With Citybook VII: King's River Bridge, we come to the end of this series. When I decided to review the Citybooks, I had to finish out some gaps in my collection. After the fire I’d been able to replace a couple of them pretty quickly. But some I’d waited on, and Citybook VII was the last one I picked up. I hesitated on that- I remembered it not being that good. Of course that was in comparison to the rest of the series, so perhaps if I tried to consider it again and read it objectively?

Some series and game lines manage to sustain their energy and creativity throughout. While they have some weak spots Changeling the Lost, Mage the Sorcerers Crusade, and Castle Falkenstein stay strong throughout. Then there’s the Gazetteer series I reviewed, which has some weaker pieces but was generally strong until we hit the last volume. That one felt like a throwaway. Citybook VII is, unfortunately, more like that. It has a couple of interesting bits but generally gives the impression that the editor and authors didn’t have a grasp on what made the other Citybooks work.

Beyond a weird shift in tone and approach in some places, there’s an unevenness to the presentation. There’s a higher page count (an increase from 92 to 112) but many more businesses presented (up from an average of 15 to 25, plus a half dozen NPC encounters). Some of the entries are short, but even the longest ones have strange filler. Lastly there’s the theme of the book. Previous volumes focused on general concepts, allowing the GM to pick and choose businesses. Citybook VII establishes the concrete location of a bridge within a city. That’s treated less as a theme and more as a specific place. We end up with half of the entries tied tightly to that location and half having nothing to do with that.
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.
PRESENTATION
Citybook VII keeps the same basic approach as the previous volumes- two columns, decently white space. The entries vary widely in length this time. Archer Books and Games is listed as the producer this time instead of Jaquays Design Studio. Editor Deborah Kerr shepherds the seventeen authors listed. Several turn in more than one entry and we have half-page NPCs scattered throughout. The maps in this volume are smaller and less interesting than in earlier volumes. The art is generally pretty average to bad. Several entries have dynamite art. Liz Danforth’s work is easily recognizable, but there’s no indication of who drew what. Earlier Citybooks identified individual artists with their entries. The cover’s more than a little ugly, with an odd shift in the logo so it doesn’t look like the rest in the series. The paper stock is decent, so that’s something? And it is longer than the other volumes…

CONTENTS
The book has four major sections, plus the oddball NPCs scattered throughout. 

Community Services: The Royal Tax Collector; The Halfling Rat Catcher’s Guild; Mildred Al Hassan’s Messengers; Mother Footcandle’s Oil Shack; The Street Cleaner; The River Raptors; The Poet’s Guild Training Centre; The Bridge Guard
Food & Entertainment: Sweeney’s Pie Shoppe; Dirty Joe’s Tavern; The Fellowship of the Moon; Ron & Don’s Chat & Chew; The Confection Connection; Orada’s Fruit Cart; Adaro’s Stew Cart; The Guzzling Gargoyle
Personal Services: Helani’s Fine Timepieces; Tunki’s Other Wear; Blind Geoffrey’s Barberie and Cauterie; Skinhold’s Boat Rental; The Clothes Chest; Teeble’s Found Goods Warehouse; Neela’s Flower Cart
Undercurrents: The Cornerstone Ghost; Fizhak’s Waifs
Bridge Encounters: Zachary Smythe (yes, really, *guh*); Chaunce Teller; Marla Adelwine; Keelat Angelo; Shecky Reenstein; Thomas Roe; Mary the Street Poet

As with the other volumes, this opens with a general editorial about how to use the book, the generic system rules, plus the map of the bridge and an explanation of the map symbols used throughout the book. The cartography takes a step back in this volume. This volume follows the tradition of some discussion of themes. But under themes it simply offers a scenario which could have appeared anywhere else in the book.

HIGHLIGHTS
Spoilers potentially here.

I have a couple of significant problems with the entries in this volume. Many of them are short, barely giving any real treatment to the ideas. Some of the longer ones had odd and goofy side bits that don’t add to the material but instead just take up space. I really look at products like these for playable material. It doesn’t have to completely flesh out the concepts, but there has to be at least some kind of spark that gets me thinking about how I’d actually use that at the table. Much of the book is meh or bogged down in unimportant details.

The best entries in the Citybooks strike the right balance between the obvious and the insane insanity. I’d pointed out the repeated device used in the first five Citybooks of the ancient mage in hiding who looks like an ordinary person. That’s a decent plot- if used once. But if players keep running onto these kinds of figures seems silly. Likewise, a time-traveling hippie dragon with a floating craps game in the back alleys of the city would be goofy. On the other hand, any entry ought to move beyond the basic premise, ought to have a twist or two. If you say there’s a Royal Tax Collector, I can pretty much imagine a basic set up for that. If I then go and read the entry and it is pretty much exactly what anyone thinking about it for two minutes would come up with…well, that’s a problem. And it is a problem that hits many of the entries in this volume. They’re boring and don’t do anything with the premise- regardless of whether the premise is mundane or fantastic. At an estimate, I’d put about half of this book in that category.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews how hard comedy is in rpg materials. Not even comedy, but just being funny or at least amusing. Many of these entries shoot for that with puns and silliness. It doesn’t work. Instead it is irritating and a radical departure from the other entries in tone. Sure there were some jokes, but those were smart and restrained. Instead here we have dump names and goofiness. I have to point out The Poet’s Guild Training Centre as especially bad in this regard.

So what do I actually like? Two entries by S. John Ross have some great elements: Blind Geoffrey’s Barberie and Cauterie and Teeble’s Found Goods Warehouse. Both manage to take a simple idea and twist it into something which will look clever, colorful and potentially dark at the table. They have oddball characters, interesting unique bits and options, and decent plot hooks. It helps that they also have the best illustrations in the book. Blind Geoffrey ties into the idea of the bridge and to some of the themes from the earlier books. The last volume, Citybook VI: Up Town, had a hairdresser, but this takes that simple concept in a completely different direction.

The other entry that has potential is Tunki’s Other’s Wear, a costume shop. That one stuck with me and I assumed it was in one of the other volumes of the series. I kept wondering where it had gone or if I’d imagined it. But it shows up here and runs in an obvious direction with the concept. But somehow it does it with flourish and nice details. The ideas hold together. I’ve used it in at least one campaign and I’ll probably use it again. It has some creepy potential or can be used more as a source of humor.

OVERALL
This gets my vote as the weakest of the Citybooks. Really, you ought to buy any or all of the others before Citybook VII. I’d only recommend it to those who must have the complete set. I feel bad saying that given the strength of the other Citybooks. I would hate for someone to come to this volume and assume the rest are of this quality.

CITYBOOKS IN REVIEW
Citybook VII: King's River Bridge