EZG reviews Parsantium: City at the Crossroads
This massive city sourcebook clocks in at a brutal 178 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page blank inside the front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a whopping 172 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
Author Richard Green kicks off the book by telling of its genesis – the city’s inspiration would essentially be a Byzantium-inspired metropolis, closer to far-east influences than our real world equivalent was – and of course, as one glimpse at the superb 2-page map by Jonathan Roberts (Yes, THE Jonathan Roberts – you know the Fantastic Maps/Song of Fire and Ice-cartographer!) tells us, the city is vast and detailed. Nestled around a massive river delta flowing into the ocean, the city covers the north and south banks with its sprawling streets, while the merchant quarter, situated on the central island, the walls, the extents of the harbor and docks just feel right- all of these, at a glance, convey the believable illusion of a city that actually could have existed and developed. It may be a small thing, but people tend to note when settlements feel inorganic, constructed. This one feels RIGHT, including wards extending beyond the confines of the city walls, which also separate the respective wards. Even the array of streets, the bridges – all of these feel like they belong and this is seriously not an easy task to achieve, especially for a city of this size.
Now, as befitting of a city f this size, we kick off with an overview from the ruler, the so-called Basileus Conrandias XVIII and his less than popular consort (nicknamed Mendatrix – two brownie-points if you can guess the meaning, though the pdf explains for the less-linguistically-inclined among us) to the city’s history and quarters and development. With a good overview out of the way, you’ll be happy to note that the city gets a full-blown PFRPG-city statblock complete with demographics etc..
Now if you’ve been to Athens, Rome or Venice (or less famous: Rothenburg, Dresden…), you’ll notice something peculiar about these cities – they have a kind of living, breathing flair, their very own mythologies steeped in stone and ready to be discovered at your leisure, if only your eyes are open and your mind (and literature/language-skills) sharp. Much of this has developed slowly over the ages, with the very rocks of the pavement, the ancient monuments speaking a language for those inclined and willing to hear. Ah, how glorious must that be in a world, where fantastical elements actually exist? Well, here’s the crux – Parsantium’s massive history, including a timeline stretching almost 2000 years, actually manages to lay the foundation for just such an endeavor – the basic mythologies of the place are in place.
Now a city sans people is just a ruin waiting to happen and the roles of the races, including dragonkin and gnolls as well as the default-races and their respective roles within the context of Parsantium are provided – but how are your player characters going to fit in? Well, know my ranting about boring character traits? Well, herein are traits (called character backgrounds) that allow you to customize your character within the confines of Parsantium.. Now in contrast to most traits, these actually come with extensive fluff-text detailing the precise implications and possibilities growing from these, making them so much more compelling. On a nit-picky side – why not call them properly “traits”? Why are the bonuses of the backgrounds untyped and not trait-bonuses? Nothing to break the content here, but good indicators that the focus on the narrative potential here is warranted.
Now beyond people, of course, government (with classic style b/w-artworks for the rulers), law and structure in general shape a city’s life and experiences – and from bureaucracy, the Strategos, tribunes to praetor and council and yes, even FINES for crime and the respective punishments are included here. Don’t believe these influence and mirror a society/are important? I’d suggest Michel Foucault’s “Discipline & Punishment” – and the punishments detailed here actually conform much to the proper etiquette of punishment and the city’s culture technology-level work well with these in context. Then again, you might not care at all, but the culture science-teacher in me rejoices when I see things make sense.
Speaking of making sense – from city watch to possible sources of entertainment like chariot races, local festivals, bathhouses, brothels and drugs to proper greeting and social customs and even superstitions, trade-routes and currencies, this chapter misses NOTHING of the constituting elements that make a city and its culture come alive. Commodities, healing and the trade of magical items also is covered in their own respective entries and, taking a cue from Raging Swan Press’ superb offerings, a random table of different events happening in the city help further make the place feel organic. This also constitutes one gripe I have with the city – one of the reasons Raging Swan Press’ villages and cities feel so organic would be the short entries of whispers and rumors and events available in tables for the DM to randomly roll – having one of these for the respective quarters would have made the city feel even more alive.
“I don’t care about your academic squeeing, Endzeitgeist, tell me about what this does for me as a DM!” All right, what about a selection of campaign themes ranging from street gangs (perhaps with a Streets of Zobeck gone Byzantium tie-in?) to politics and intrigue or the return of a legendary rakshasa – Parsantium supports just about all play-styles you can conceive and the pdf offers some interesting guidance and inspiration for the DM in that regard.
Speaking of helping the DM – the districts are detailed in an exceedingly detailed manner that would blow the format of my reviews out of all proportions, so let’s just say that the respective areas of the city are exceedingly detailed and also come with their own symbols, iconography and landmarks the local populace might use to tell you where to find certain areas.
Caravan-centric wards, forums, hippodrome, clubs for gentlemen arcanists (the Fireball Club – nice nod to the Hellfire Club…) – the wards come with first impressions, sample passer-by characters (fluff only) and places of interest. And yes, a 200+ feet colossal bronze statue is in here as well as just about all variations of sample businesses relevant for adventuring – taverns (also those frequented by the wizards of the esoteric order of the blue lotus +2 browniepoints if you get that allusion), shops, scribes, theatres, a garden mausoleum, mosques, a secret temple of Kali, a chinatown-like sub-ward , gambling halls on galleys and even a tasteful (and non-explicitly depicted!) BDSM-brothel and yes, even a flotsam town within the city – the mind boggles at the amount of surprisingly concisely fitted elements that constitute the sprawling metropolis and the adventure hook potential just about each of these has. Even before the tunnels that constitute the hidden quarter (including random encounter chart, btw…) and e.g. a mapped hideout for your convenience. From halfling camps outside the city to forests, the area around the city is also glanced at, just should you feel this wilderness itch.
If you require more motivation or some sample pro-/antagonists, you’ll be happy to hear that no less than 16 organizations, from aforementioned mage-order to the friendly half-orc society and even more guilds provide for ample social networks for PCs to work and DM to use to tailor proper adventure potential….even before the obligatory noble houses and rakshasas influencing the city’s fortunes. It should be noted, though, that none of the organizations provides distinct prestige-mechanics-related benefits – as fluff-only, they work, though.
Finally, religion of course shapes a city’s life and feeling and Parsantium is no different – well, actually it is. At least for ole’ Europeans like yours truly who isn’t that used to religious multiculturalism from everyday life as some of you fellow American city dwellers might be – The eclectic mix of Byzantium-inspired gods and those drawn from the Indian and Chinese folklore makes for a broad selection that supports well the multicultural nature of Parsantium. It should be noted, though, that this supplement was released prior to “Gods of the Inner Seas” – thus, we get no explicit notes on obeisance, but also no inquisitions or sub-domains, restricting the gods to being rather rudimentary and, compared to the rest of the source-book, disappointing.
The pdf concludes with a massive index.
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn’t notice any particularly grievous issues – in fact, for a book of this size, the editing is very, very tight, so kudos! Layout adheres to a printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard with scarce (but as far as I could tell) original and fitting b/w-artworks. The embroidered line of glyphs on the top of the page is nice to look at, but had a curious effect on me – during the course of this review, I skipped a lot of pages back and forth and the odd and even pages have a slightly different set, which means that staring at the screen while skipping pages might be slightly disorienting. Note that as an utmost nitpick, though. The pdf comes with EXTENSIVE nested bookmarks for your convenience, making reading Parsantium easy on the DM.
Superbly ambitious for a first product, I did not expect much from Richard Green’s metropolis – and I’m seldom so glad to be proven wrong. Parsantium BREATHES authenticity and love – New York City meets Byzantium, modern metropolis meets swords & sorcery – this book actually manages to portray a believable, interesting, unique city that oozes the spirit of Al Qadim, early weird fiction and recent phenomena like the god of war-series, all while staying believable. Down to earth grit, high fantasy epics – this place supports everything and is better off for it -and manages to walk the tightrope and NOT become generic. Think Kaer Maga if a book of this size had been devoted to the city – only larger. The drop-dead-gorgeous map by Jonathan Roberts (which btw. also comes as high-res jpeg for your perusal) is just the icing on the cake here. Not since books like 3.0’s Hollowfaust or since the Great City by 0onegames have I read a city and actually wanted to visit it. This is on par with how iconic Zobeck by now is – and feels thoroughly, wholly RIGHT. Concise. Well-conceived. A stunning achievement indeed! Now I wouldn’t be me if I had no complaints now, right? So yeah, what hurts the city is its obvious intention to be multi-format. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t object to fluff-centric books and honestly, by now I’d rather have good fluff than the oomphteenth bad archetype, feat etc. But e.g. the Esoteric Order of the Blue Lotus screams at least PrC to me. The organizations practically demand prestige benefits. Concise addiction-rules for the drugs and beverages would have been so cool…what about vehicular combat rules expanded from UC for e.g. the chariot-races? Yes, I know – not the intention.
But these things, at least to me, are the only things missing from this glorious city. Now don’t get me wrong – look at the price-point – exceedingly low. Note that this has been made sans kickstarter. Add the SUPERB writing and good production values and we still get a city that should find a home in Qadira, in Al-Qadim, in Conan- and similarly Sword & Sorcery-themed campaigns. We still get a superb milestone of a book, one of the best settlements available out there right now. There’s a reason I evoked some of my all-time favorites in the above text – you simply won’t find any comparable resource out there. This city is unique and daringly so, bravely carving its own niche and making for one of the most furious freshman offerings I’ve seen in quite a while. Light on the crunch-side yes, but any writing that manages to draw me in to the extent I want to walk a city’s streets does it right in my book. Parsantium establishes one superb framework, one I hope will get ample crunchy books and especially, adventures to support it. If the muses and fates be just, this will be remembered just as fondly as e.g. Freeport in the years to come. Yes, the absence of whispers, rumors and events and lack of statblocks are minor downsides, but not enough to drag this down. The place deserves a chance – give Parsantium a visit! Final verdict? 5 stars + seal of approval. And yes, the relative absence of crunch and somewhat disappointing entry on the gods are the only minor nitpicks I could muster. For the exceedingly low price, this is a true steal!