Friday, May 25, 2012

Citybook VI: Up Town: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook for any fantasy rpg detailing the elements of an wealthy quarters of a city.


I’ve always pictured PCs relation to the wealthy like that of a private detective’s. In that genre the PI rolls up into the houses and mansions of the rich and powerful. He’s hired help- perhaps a desperate last resort to avoid being tainted with anything unseemly. The gumshoe’s out of his element, even when the scions of the mighty try to make him feel at home. He does his job, kicks up dirt, pisses people off and in the end has to crawl back to his hole in the wall office. So the players skulk back to Nightside or Sideshow after their work is done.

That’s how I have it in my head, but many recent fantasy rpgs have allowed players to pick and choose their place in society. In Old School games you were the dregs of society, the level one filth trying to make a buck and rise up the ladder until you could afford a hovel and a horse. And there would always be mightier people above you. Point-driven systems, games which allow you to take nobility as a class, and even some random background-roll games open up the possibilities for the players.

Citybook VI: Up Town smartly delivers shops and businesses serving the wealthy of a city. It doesn’t delve into the nature of that wealth or the structures of nobility there. The concept’s open making it useful for most fantasy cities. That’s nice to see after a couple of series volumes with narrower approaches. Some of the businesses related only tangentially to the theme, but the book solidly holds together.
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 VI keeps the same design and layout as the last couple of volumes in the series. It’s a 96-page perfect-bound softcover. We have a nice readable text design done in two columns. Jacquays Design Studio once again oversees the project. The artwork’s generally pretty good, with an OK full color cover. A few pieces of the art are really excellent. The problem is that unlike previous volumes you can’t tell who drew what. Before the artist was listed with the entry they illustrated. Here a list appears at the front, without citing which is their work. That’s a little annoying. The book also has some really large maps- taking up significant page real estate. The size of them in this volume feels a little like padding; that may be in part because I’ve never found the maps particularly useful. The book supplies two stand-alone NPCs and sixteen establishments written by fourteen authors.

The book has the usual pattern of three major sections, each with a forward page.

Community Services: Marianrose Conservatorium; Amaranthine's Rest; Greenhargon's Museum; Ironshield Financial Services; The Reliquarium; and Lord Llewellyn Finster & Lord Wescott
Lodging & Entertainment: The Lost Inn; Gloriana Theatre; Harrow Downs; and Cydryn's Aerial Palladium
Personal Services: Madrigan's Fine Catering; Exeter's Antique Emporium; Haprice's Golden Scissors; Feats of Clay; Hides Alive; The Cask & Bottle; and Jasmine's Fine Jewelry (and Explosives)

The book opens with a general editor’s note on how to use the book. The next four pages lay out the generic guidelines and map keys. Half a page covers some themes/ideas for the book. Up Town turns back from the tight links and connections present in the last three volumes. There are a few cross references (including some tight links to key elements from Citybook V: Sideshow) but the connections are less pronounced. The handful of cross-establishment scenarios feels thin. As well unlike other themed volumes in the series there’s no discussion of what the wealthy quarter in the city means or how one brings that to the table.

Spoilers potentially here.

Citybook VI has few weak elements. It offers two NPCs (ala Citybook IV) with full page descriptions. They’re ok; I’d have preferred some more general city material. The Lost Inn’s the sore thumb in the book however. It feels like it was leftover from another volume and has only light connections to the wealthy quarter. Combine that with the strange connection to the Old Man of the City from Citybook V. Plus the concept’s very close to one given in Citybook IV. On the other hand, a couple of the establishments presented here fit with the theme, but don’t go far beyond their initial premise. Madrigan's Fine Catering and Amaranthine's Rest could have had a little more spice to them. They aren’t bad, just not as great as the other entries.

That makes picking the three best more difficult. I should note that this is the first Citybook that doesn’t have a disguised, hidden or amnesiac high wizard of legend stumbling around. Nice to see them skip that trope after hitting the well five times.

I’ve used Feats of Clay a couple of times, both in games set in Pavis. I love the characters and the strange premise of the shop. Joseph the potter discovers he can make nearly indestructible ceramics using his kiln. But he’s unsure why- and his worry that the process will vanish dogs his every step. The secret behind this is pretty clever and offers a neat romantic twist. Also the idea of indestructible ceramics- well you can imagine what happens when PCs realize what they have access to…

The Reliquarium and Greenhargon's Museum I consider as one entry; when I used them I mashed them together. I love the idea of a museum which itself is a living being, with the owner uncertain about the nature and secrets of it. And the concept of mundane objects of veneration is also particularly cool. I dig the thought of players having to rummage through a junkyard of the strange in order to find something they need. I had great success with this in my games and love describing the businesses.

I almost can’t decide on a third. The Gloriana Theatre offers so many plot ideas- especially if you have a Shakespearean bent. Harrow Downs is also cool and could be the source of many adventures. But I have to go with Cydryn's Aerial Palladium because it is so oddball. The owner’s floating building, exotic bodyguards and odd appearance make this one stand out. I love that Cydryn worries about adventurers, having been one himself. If they’ve come to stay with him and say they’re heading out, he’ll do his level best to convince, persuade or seduce them into staying. In my Exalted campaign, I used this as the basis for a seller of rare birds- in keeping with the flying shop.

This gets my vote as the strongest of the Citybooks. It may not be useful for every campaign but if you have wealthy players or a group who serves the elite you’ll find material here. Nearly all the entries keep with the theme, and all offer several unique and interesting story and plot hooks. Citybook VI: Up Town’s worth picking up if you plan to run any kind of long-term fantasy campaign set in a city.

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