Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (OSR/almost system neutral)
This book is 64 pages long, with one page credits…and we actually get MORE out of the book than its 64 pages. How does that work? Well, let me elaborate.
This pdf is based on the second edition, primarily the print edition. It has received pretty much a selection of awards. So why review this now? Because all reviews I found did not really prepare me for what this book actually brings to the table.
So let’s start with the obvious: This book is radically and systematically designed to make use of the features of the physicality of the medium book. The hardcover comes with a sleeve and on the inside of the sleeve, you get a massive full-color map that can be found via a secret link if you get the pdf version. The map , much like the cover image and interior artwork, all adhere to author Zak Sabbath’s unique and distinct style – a style that may polarize, but personally, I enjoy the somewhat post-punk/post-gothic, fantastic anachronism that the depictions of the city as black claws rising from the world conveyed – my immediate association would be the BLAME manga-series and its sprawling, cruel structures…but this is no mere quote, it is an aesthetic vision and, as all good art does, it will not be to everyone’s liking.
The book’s structure. Well, on the inside of the sleeves and yes, throughout the book, would be instructions for charts: The front and back cover, on the inside and outside, provide charts, with representations of the claw-like sprawling city structures framed by numbers; by for example dropping dice on these artworks, you can, among other things, determine quick and dirty damage and attacks versus body parts or use it to jumpstart your imagination in a variety of other ways. One page away from the inside of the back cover (which btw. contains a gigantic table), we have a vast selection of professions – similarly, relations between them can thus be quickly determined. And indeed, while not all such functions championed by the book can be perfectly translated to all the different systems out there, I should not be remiss to mention that a significant section of this pdf is devoted to being basically one of the most amazing GM-aids I have ever read, regardless of the system you’re using.
If you have ever read a fantasy book like China Miéville’s brilliant Bas-Lag novels and wondered how to ever depict a sprawling metropolis like that in your game without resorting to copious levels of handwaving or gigantic tomes of prepared material – this book is the answer. the urbancrawling rules are meta and brilliant: The book sports a vast array of so-called urbancrawling rules and tricks that allow you to almost instantly generate whole neighborhoods, street webs, etc. – beyond the fantasy metropolis, these methods can easily be employed in pretty much any roleplaying context, whether you’re going for the fantastic hive, a sprawling science-fiction station, non-Euclidean ruins… generating chaotic street-networks within a few minutes has been a boon for my own campaign ever since I read the ideas here. They may be deceptively simple, yes – but oh so effective. And no, I am not going to spoil the details here. Why? Because I really want you to get this book.
Now, these urbancrawling rules obviously can only provide the framework for an enterprising GM to use, but in conjunction with aforementioned graphs and tables, the book becomes more interesting. And if you require a vast array of detail, fret not, for a significant portion of the book is devoted to gigantic table upon table of names, professions, goals, names – and tying the NPCs together in social webs is similarly covered. I tried it. Within 30 minutes with this book, I can make a moderately detailed series of very professional feeling villages, neighborhoods and similar settlements. And I suck at drawing maps and am damn picky. And yes, from looted bodies to fortunes and magical effects, the strange and uncommon all tap into this massive dressing collection herein.
Now, the dressing here does depict the Vornheim setting; the Grey Maze, its sprawling spires rising from the arctic plane, a city near a forest that should not exist, of which scholars claim that the trees may be phlegmatic undead; a city wondrous and vile, near the city of goblins, situated on a hive of stone, ostensibly the result of legendary medusas once petrifying the flesh of whatever once was…the world?. Here, the church of the god of Iron, Rust and Rain and the church of the goddess of all flesh exist. It is within this city that the decadent upper class has taken to the fad of purchasing slow pets, highlighting their copious surfeit of spare time; it is here that sometimes, there are masquerades; sometimes, the gates are opened to the wolves. It is common knowledge that the skin of snakes and serpentine creatures are books that contain ancient secrets and that here, the wyvern of the well can be found – who will unerringly answer ONE question for any interlocutor. From the granary cats to the grub nagas and thornchildren, a selection of truly imaginative creatures inhabits this place…and a selection of superstitions can provide a vast array of different adventure hooks.
Which brings me to yet another aspect of the book: You see, Vornheim is ALSO a book containing three modules.
I’ll be brief, but potential players should still jump to the conclusion. There are some SPOILERS to be found here.
The most common would be the House of the Medusa, wherein the PCs have to infiltrate the house of one of the fabled medusas…oh, and if they kill her, they may inadvertently de-petrify a significant part of the world, making it flesh once again…with far-reaching consequences.
The second module deals with the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, a menagerie of strange creatures gone totally rogue, where the primary antagonist of the book, the mastermind takes on a form most peculiar – and if the PCs don’t want to brave all those lethal and unique creatures, they should be up to their A-game.
Thirdly, we have the labyrinthine puzzle-dungeon also known as the library of Zorlac, basically an interesting infiltration/espionage-scenario at your fingertips…or a truly strange place to visit and work in.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a very buy one-column or two-column standard, with a ton of information on every single page. The layout is obviously made for the A5-booklet (6” by 9”) size, though I’d strongly suggest not printing out multiple pages on one sheet of paper here – the sheer information density means that the font becomes too small if you try that here. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The book is incredibly aesthetically pleasing if you enjoy Zak Sabbath’s style of art, with layout using black frames on the pages – so yeah, this is not the most printer-friendly of books. And while the pdf does an admirable job at maintaining the raw functionality of the physical dead-tree hardcover, the sheer switching of sheets of paper takes a bit away from the immediate functionality when comparing the printed version or screen-version with the physical hardcover. The hardcover is the preferred version – with nice binding, sleeves and even the covers having a function…so yeah. If you can afford it, go for print.
Zak Sabbath’s Vornheim is a piece of art that captured my interest to a higher extent that many, many books of ten times their page-count and more. As a GM-aid, this provides some phenomenally-innovative tools of the trade that even veteran GMs may not necessarily know yet – I learned more from this book’s tricks than from any comparable GM-book, which is a feat in and of itself, considering the experience I have. While the quick-and-dirty attack-charts or any chart really, may not be for everyone, I’d be seriously surprised if any GM went into this book without some seriously cool new tool of the trade.
The city Vornheim itself represents one of the most evocative settlements I have read in a long time: Beyond the truly fantastic setting, its unconventional premises and unfettered, raw collection of absolutely inspired tidbits, the influences of contemporary weird fiction and the writings of Borges are readily apparent on every page. The city manages to evoke a sense of wonder only all too rarely still found among the settings out there – it is phenomenal and I would not have minded a 500-page tome on the city; it’s brevity is almost painful, it’s excellence achingly pronounced, particularly if you’ve found yourself bored with standard settlements and most so-called “fantastic” cities and customs.
The 3 modules contained herein all have different, interesting angles and while I explicitly remained brief in their descriptions, they similarly…well, are brief. They are interesting, evocative, inspired…but brief. Oh so brief.
You’re probably seeing where this is going. Vornheim is, in all components of its content, whether as a GM-aid, as a sourcebook or regarding the modules included, a truly phenomenal offering; each component shines brightly like a cruel Northern star – but at the same time, while the components are interconnected, I could not help but feel like it was buckling under its own ambition – the book is so jam-packed, it strains at the seams and universally leaves the reader inspired and wiser, yes – but also wanting more. You will not finish reading this book and feel saturated. When I came to the end of the setting-section, I was disappointed I did not get more; the same held true for all other sections. This book represents a perfect kit to create a glorious city, a sprawling moloch. It perfectly depicts one of the most unique, fantastic cities I’ve read…but it may be, at times, too good, too inspired for its own sake.
I can absolutely see someone expecting a campaign setting/city-setting wanting more; I can see those craving adventures wanting more detail; I can see those that looked for the GM-aid components wanting to receive more dressing, more details, more tricks…but ultimately, all of these criticisms are not fair. Do I believe that this, at double the page count, would have been even better? Heck yes. Do I want a full-blown, massive sourcebook on Vornheim, perhaps a whole mega-campaign or AP set in it? OH YES. Yes, please. But the thing is – the book does not *try* to be just a city sourcebook; just some modules, just some game-aids – while the amalgamation of these components may put a strain on the reader, they also force the GM’s hand.
Vornheim says: “This is what you can do with the book. Want more? Then strain your creativity, use your own brain. CREATE.” This book, in short, forces the GM to act, to create. It strips away the pretensions, the excuses we make time and again and tells us to make its contents our own, make this grey maze our grey maze. Sure, we may crave just consumption – but this does not try to be simply consumed – it forces you to create, by virtue of its own brilliance.
All the accolades heaped upon this book are justified. While the pdf loses a bit of the impact of its physicality in the electronic version, I still consider this to be one truly amazing, unique book that should grace the shelves of any self-respecting GM. It is a brilliant exercise in inspiration, a rallying call to flex one’s own creative muscles – it is, in short, an intoxicating vision. Get this.
My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval. And yes, this receives the EZG-Essential-tag. This belongs into the library of any advanced GM.
You can get this amazing book in the electronic version (nice to see if you’d like it) here on OBS!
You can get the print copy here on LotFP’s shop!