Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Citybook I: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook presenting city-based establishments for any fantasy rpg.


I date the real start of D&D to 1976- I know they published books before that, but Christmas of 1975’s when my dad gave my sister the little three-book set. So I count 1976 as the first big year, the year it really started rolling. I'm amazed when I look at just six years later- 1982 and see the kinds of cool, intriguing and mature stuff coming out: Star Frontiers; expansions to Champions; Dragonquest 2e; Universe; Man, Myth & Magic; Rolemaster; Fringeworthy…crazy. Thirty years ago.

1982 also saw the publication of Flying Buffalo’s
Citybook I, which would lead off an awesome series. We’d had some interesting city-based material for RPGs in the years before that: The Free City of Haven; Thieves World; Cities by Midkemia; and City State of the Invincible Overlord among other Judges Guild products. Citybook took a long view- offering generic material for any fantasy campaign, created by professionals, an anthology of ideas from excellent writers. I keep my eye out for urban adventure material- I love the idea of campaigns based in cities. I’m pretty widely read in that- but the Citybooks are where I start when I think about running adventures in metropolitan settings. Other books might offer overviews of how a city functions, set up specific mysteries or crimes to be solved, or offer random tables for generating populations and encounters. But the Citybooks offer strong and adaptable stories.


I plan to review all seven volumes of the series, since they have different themes and different strengths and weaknesses. 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 I: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker comes from Flying Buffalo’s All-System Catalyst series. FB keeps the whole series mostly in print, depending on the vagaries of fate. The 128-page perfect bound volume has gone through several printings- later ones like mine offer an index of business running up through Volume IV of the series. They also have a more flexible stock cover, making the book easier to flip through. Stephan Peregrine provides a nice and simple cover illustration. The amazing Liz Danforth offers most of the interior illustrations. She’s one of my top five favorite rpg artists. Unfortunately some of her pencil sketch images end up washed out in the printing here. Steven S. Crompton, who many might remember from his work on the Grimtooth’s Traps series, provides additional illustrations and the location maps. The layout and text design is very much of that era- simple clean and functional. The page is filled with material, but not too densely. Editor Larry DiTillo provides most of the entries in this volume, along with a handful of other contributors.

As the first volume of the series, Citybook I takes the most general approach. It present classic businesses and services most commonly appearing in frpgs. The book opens with a nice overview, setting up how to use the material and defining the traits for NPCs. Paul O’Connor then provides a three page article on presenting cities for players. It’s general but useful advice. Following a few more pages of keys and miscellaneous information, we get the bulk of the material. This volume divides the twenty-five entries into seven sections:

Lodging & Entertainment: The Diamond Spider Tavern; The Grey Minstrel Inn

Personal Services: Korbo’s Transport; Skywhite’s House of Lavation; Gillian’s Fantasies in Wax; Larkspur the Leech; Kolat’s Emporium of Miracles; Professor Fyber’s Taxidermy and Museum; The House of Thelesha Moonscry; Sleaz’s Tattoo Parlor
Services: Hardware: Bron Arvo’s Armory; Blades by Tor; Trueshaft’s Bowery; Red Earth Leatherworks; Findar’s Stable and Smithy
Food Services: Widow Rohls Bakeshop; Rumpchunk’s Butchery; Slimon’s Strolling Salmagundi Wagon
Community Services: Crunge’s Clocktower; The Bellmen’s Guild
Spiritual Services: The Temple of Putrexia; The Palace of Peaceful Repose; McKinley Cemetary (sic)
Security Services: Skilfin Barracks; Bummingham Jail

As the most generic Citybook, CB I sticks to the basics. Business as set up as backdrops- places and scenes for the players to provide some depth and detail to their urban exploration. Most businesses have at least one twist or hook (such as a ghost, secret agenda, hidden magic, or lost wizard) which the GM can use at their discretion. My favorites from the book are the Rumpchunk’s Butchery and Skywhite’s House of Lavation mostly because they present business I hadn’t thought of at the time. I can imagine those as colorful scenes. For the first, players might need some rare monster cut up to sell without loss of value. I could see a later scene for a group of hardened PCs who suddenly need to make themselves presentable. Anime-style bathhouse hijinks would be optional. I like where the businesses point at considering the implications of a traditional business within a fantasy setting- such as the taxidermist and the tattoo parlor. The Bellmen’s Guild also suggests a rich world of local organizations, dedicated to the life of the community and providing a rich source of interactions.

Some of the business will be easier to add to a traditional fantasy rpg than others. The candlemaker, Gillian’s Fantasies in Wax or the oddball Temple of Putrexia will require some engineering- probably directly linking their elements to a story or plot. A few of the business seems a little too generic- for example the Diamond Spider Tavern. Some material will require the GM to consider how to model, like the bar games presented or the race across town scenario suggested in Korbo’s Transport. A few of the entries have fallback twists which will reappear in later entries in the series (amnesia, for example). Despite a few flaws, the book holds together well. Especially good are the NPCs who feel fully-fleshed. A good NPC has to have goals and objective- which don’t necessarily match those of the PC. Each presented here does, with scenario ideas arising naturally from those. The book ends with a page suggesting four scenarios which cut across multiple businesses. I like those and appreciate that those connections have been kept to the end, rather than in the individual entries. That allows a GM to pick and choose pieces without feeling like they’re losing anything.


The Citybook series remains one of my favorites, and one that gets better as it goes along. This volume, which won the HG Wells Best RPG Adventure for 1982, has great material. That being said, many of the later volumes are even stronger than this one. Part of that comes from experience, part from tighter themes and part from a more diverse group of contributors for those books. Still, reading through Citybook I you’ll find great ideas for city stories and a hugely useful resource for any GM. Most importantly the book reduces the assumptions about the game world making it easy to cut and paste. Rather than building your city for you, Citybook I provides a way to do excellent finishing to your rough creation. I love this approach and wish it worked as well for non-fantasy settings.


  1. Great review! A agree- the Citybooks are great. I once ran a session where the PCs entered a city and I had no idea what they would want to do; Citybook I (I don't think I had any of the others at that time) and a table of random street encounters was all I really needed, and we had a great session.

  2. ... a paladin of mine once lost his virginity in skywhite's house of lavation ... :-)

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