Friday, July 24, 2015

Suggested Readings for Running Fantasy Cities

Regrets weigh on my mind. I cut a few sections from the Fever-Dreaming Marlinko manuscript and one of them I am already rueful about is the Suggested Reading section.

The readings from the gaming product list (I will post the non-fictional and fictional suggestions if there is reader interest) are for the most part geared around the central design challenge that nagged the hell out of me during the writing and playtesting: how can we do a better job presenting gameable fantasy cities by minimizing the traditional layering of boring, not-useful mundanities (the whole “here's a hobbit bootmaker with 3 hp and two daughters” syndrome) and maximizing things that either give it more flavor or make for better adventures at the table?

The products in the list below are all things that helped me think that framing question through (though it's up to y'all to decide if Marlinko succeeds).

In-Print Gaming
There's been a good deal of digital ink spilled on this one and for good reason—it is a forceful, articulate partisan of the “can the mundane” way of running large, sprawling cities. Of particular utility at the table are the numerous generators for things such as random streets, neighborhoods, taverns, NPCs (and their quirks and motivations), etc.

In a recent social media exchange WA author Trey Causey (and for full disclosure, one of my fellow co-partners in the Hydra Collective) said:“ If you want a Lankhmar or New Crubozon, it means the city has to be almost a character. It needs to inhabit mostly a space of content in players' minds, not as much a place of spatial location."

This seems not only broadly true but something I found deeply inspiring about WA's centerpiece City (a 1930s-ish fantasy NYC). I found his general approach of imaging the hell out of the features of a city that make it unique and memorable coupled with a neighborhood focus (with sidebars and boxes for unique social features or gameable charts) to be worth reading for the how to bring out the flavor and life in a fantasy city. You get a strong whiff of it on his blog index.

Glorantha produced a wonderfully adventurable city in the Chaosium-era boxed sets (republished together with a huge expansion by Moon Design). While I found some of the building entries to be on the bland side in Pavis, the product makes up for it by having evocative and interesting factions, distinct neighborhoods (each with their own street gang), town god cult (Pavis), dwarven undercity and best of all a massive ruinscrawl in the next-door Big Rubble.

The city write-up section is a flavorful exploration of an Asian-inspired city (and thus a nice departure from the standard more Western-based city books). I love the variant equipment lists and neighborhood encounter charts.

Lesserton and Mor seems to be directly inspired by the Big Rubble or at least it's very similar (ruinscrawl next to small base town). I found Lessertown, as a good solid example of an interesting adventurer boomtown, to be surprisingly more interesting than the ruined Mor.

Out of Print Gaming
City adventures run as much or more on navigating humanity and information as they do on site exploration. As such Cities by Midkemia Press (and later Chaosium) with it's massive array of city encounter charts is a huge inspiration for its breadth and depth (covering everything from a table of accidental jostlings of and by NPCs to a sub-table for the rare appearance of gods). The back section of the booklet is an intriguing downtime system that lets players run a minigame for what happens to them between adventures. 

(Btw Jeremy Duncan's cover for Marlinko is a bit of an homage to the second edition cover by Richard Becker).

First most on any list of suggested readings for fantasy cities just has to be Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories. TSR's first and second edition are uneven but have some highly useful urban geomorphs and a beautiful map (that allows space for said geomorphs).

City State of the Invincible Overlord
The granddaddy of all fantasy gameable cities has to make the list even for all its mundane aspects. I dig the weird little sub-systems such as the strange and vicious court system.

City State of the World Emperor
Much as above though I found much of the actual city detail to be weirder, more evocative and more interesting than its brother CSIO.

Loaded down with a heap of mundane descriptions and some of the worst and blandest character names, Midkemia's Jonril makes the cut by having a really interesting expedition sub-system for generating missions in the nearby howling wilderness of the Sunken Lands.


  1. Good list. I'd add Gamelords' City of Haven and Midkemia's City of Carse to the out of print list.

  2. I'd be curious what fiction/novels you would recommend.

  3. For a more OSR version of Pavis and the Big Rubble I recommend:

  4. You can get Cities and Carse as PDFs from Midkemia Press.

  5. “here's a hobbit bootmaker with 3 hp and two daughters” I don't have a problem with this so much it's the adding of 5 paragraphs of text to the description which is the problem. Even if it's great it's too much to read.

  6. I was just reading a copy of Jonril, and noting that about the names. Love the cover though.

  7. I would recommend Warhammer: City of Chaos as one book that should be included in canon of city sourcebooks, more recent Marienburg: Sold Down the River could be though even better.