Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Vornheim

I feel compelled to link this in this review: DriveThru RPG Bans All Future Titles from Zak S. Read it before you purchase this.


By Zak S.
64 pages plus dustjacket (but dustjacket is filled with charts from the book, the inside covers are printed, and the front and back cover are game tools)
6” x 8.5”
Published 2011, by Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Vornheim is a supplement on city adventures written for class and level, old-school roleplaying games. It’s roughly half supplement on the city of Vornheim, central city in author Zak S.'s D&D game, and half city building kit. The intro and back cover claim "you can use it to build your own city, even in the middle of a game." Let's see how it measures up.

The Setting

Vornheim is an ancient city of high and twisty towers and alleys and bridges and tunnels. It’s sitting on a cube-shaped world made of petrified demon flesh riddled through with dungeon tunnels. Snakes are books, and people can learn to read snakes to learn their knowledge. Nearby cities are ruled by strange governments with even more bizarre rulers.

The setting is very Dying Earth-like. This is a compliment, because that’s hard to pull off. The decadent, ancient cultures, decaying atmosphere, and bizarre oddities (pet snails, exotic creatures, misanthropic monster schemers, arcane and strange laws and superstitions) make it a perfect Dying Earth city. It feels like what if Mega City One was filled with folks from the Empire of the Petal Throne and then dropped into the Dying Earth. Cugel would get in a lot trouble here but he wouldn’t stand out. If you aren’t running a city of Vancian decay, well . . . it’s going to stand out a lot. This isn’t meant as criticism, just commentary. I may plunder Vornheim for its systems and tables and a setting bit or two, but I’ll probably save the entire setting itself for a more DERPG-like world than my current one.

The book does detail out some major locations in the city, both for more high level interest (the big library, for example) and more prosaic concerns (the home of a nasty NPC you can rob or otherwise molest). These figured examples can be dropped in anywhere.

The Kit

The book’s claim is that it’s a kit for city adventures. It sure is. You can sum up the process in the phrase “drop some dice on the book.” The PCs want to find a specific location in the city? Drop some dice on the book - one die represents where the PCs are, the other where the location is. A quick system for generating streets and hazards lays out the path there. Random encounter tables (complete with connections between encounters) give you stuff to have happen on the way. You go from “Hey can we go to a fur trader’s shop?” to how to get there and what happens on the way in under a minute. An even quicker system lets you price out goods without looking them up. An even faster system lets you lay out the floorplan of buildings, both crazy Vornheim-style tall towers and more bland generic fantasy ones alike. The book promises to “show [GMs] how to make 30 floorplans in 30 seconds” and it delivers. It’s a toolkit that comes with a figured example in the form of Vornheim instead of a city book with some tables.

One interesting idea is that you can roll on the book cover for combat results or to generate levels, HP, and Armor Class for NPCs. This means you can grab a handful of dice (one per NPC, or one per attack) and drop them on the book. You do an up-down-left-right lookup to numbers and hit locations written on the edge and there you go, that’s how the attacks go. Or what level the NPC is and how many HP per level he’s got. And so on.

I have no idea how it would work in play but the idea looks great. Certainly the other tables/pages are clearly awesome and a few test runs made me right at home with them. I especially liked the pages for filling a neighborhood with businesses with a dropped handful of dice, the floorplan shortcuts, and the table of aristocrats and their distinguishing traits (Including things as varied as “Always tells to truth” to “Fears to touch the ground” and even weirder/cooler results I won’t spoil). Even the NPC tables feed into each other: each NPC has a direct relationship with the next NPC down, so you never generate someone in a vacuum.

So can you generate this stuff in play, without slowing things down? I think so, yes. It’s fast and easy, and gives you enough to go on to put adventure in the PC’s paths without writing yourself into a corner.

There is a nice little section with player’s notes, so you get feedback on what you’ve seen in the book from the women who played in the campaign. That’s the first one of these I’ve seen in an RPG book. It’s as if those “how the PCs fared” sections from Gary Gygax’s adventures were written by the players instead, in daily speech instead of swords and sorcery style war story writeups.

Further advice on city adventurers in general is scattered about the book. One piece I especially liked was that adventures in town generally mean breaking the law, so the law has to further the adventure not bring the game to a screeching halt. Another reminds you that the PCs can just leave a city if the risk-to-reward ration skews against them, so it’s important to make the city worth staying in, even in the face of those laws and difficulties.

How is it for GURPS?

Since that’s what I play, let’s talk about how this supplement is for GURPS 4e Dungeon Fantasy.

It works pretty well, actually. You can’t use the neat roll-on-the-book feature for combat for GURPS, or at least not easily. It would probably take less effort to just design a new one for GURPS than to retrofit. Additionally, many of the suggested systems need a d4, and many tables need d20s and percentile dice (two d10s in my day) in addition to the usual d6s you’ll use for GURPS.

Most of the creatures, spells, and NPCs have no stats, just descriptions, so they are pretty easy to generate in GURPS. It’s not like having full DnD style stats would help much, and the lack doesn’t hurt it.

The systems for running city adventures, making up prices, and generating random encounters and NPCs will work without any need to convert them. The advice is all systemless, so it holds up no matter what. PC is a 4th level ranger? Great. PC is a 275 point DF wizard specializing in attack spells? That works too. City adventures are city adventures.

Content: 5 out of 5. If there is something missing from this book that you need to run city adventures, I don’t know what it is.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Cool art, easy to read text, awesome ideas about using all available space down to the page edges as gaming tools.

Overall:The book is a bit costly at $17.50, but it’s really worth the price if you can scrape up the money. It’s a great tool for urban adventures, and I can see using it for any fantasy, science-fantasy, or even dark science-fiction game’s cities.

FWIW I got my copy from IPR. They were excellent, especially when I needed customer service after Paypal decided to be stupid. Solution: Keep buying from IPR, but not using Paypal.


  1. Vornheim is great stuff. Cool to hear that it is useful with GURPS, too.

    By the way, great blog subtitle ;)


  2. @goblinbau: Thanks! I'm just I can't read your blog. :(

  3. Yes, I write in german. It is mostly about Dungeonslayers and OSR gaming at the moment.
    I thought about writing some articles in english, but I think that it would be much work for just a few readers more...

  4. If you publish any in English, let me know and I'll go check them out.


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