Friday, May 23, 2014

Tommy's Take on The Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay

So, the only Labyrinth Lord products I have ever reviewed have all been by Small Niche Games...and when I posted recently on Google+ about how I needed to do more reviews, Pete Spahn hit me up again about a review, this time for The Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay, a "home base" meant for The Chronicles of Amherth.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay (which may or may not be an anagram) is a city sourcebook meant for The Chronicles of Amherth, but easily dropped into many fantasy settings. The PDF is currently Pay What You Want (which includes free, if you're so inclined), and weighs in at 223 pages. The entire book is also Open Game Content, and Small Niche Games encourages you to utilize the city in your own commercial adventures, which is pretty cool.

The city sits on a network of ancient tunnels, is ruled over by The Church of Law and Order, is gripped in power struggles by wealthy families, is suspicious of magic (including demihumans) and treats adventurers like heroes.

Adventuring in Dolmvay touches on the Adventurer's Guild (which all Adventurers have to join), as well as the various adventuring companies operating in the city (like the Wardens, who often moonlight as guards, or The Company of the Wall, who managed to secure exclusive adventuring rights to The Great Valnwall). The various factions and conflicts in the city are also detailed, like Human vs Demihuman tensions, hostilities between rival merchant families and, of course, the secrets buried in the tunnels underneath the city.

The Ancient History of the city is detailed next, with a small discussion on the City-States that preceded it (specifically the City-State of Vay, the predecessor to Dolmvay).

The bulk of the book is taken up (appropriately) with the city proper. The city boasts 70,000 strong, and is ruled tightly by the rule of Law, with little tolerance for criminals. The calendar roughly matches ours (standardized to 30 days a month), complete with a weekly Holy Day. They even celebrate a Liberation Day in their equivalent of July, a day honoring the dead (complete with costumes) in their October and a Yule holiday in what would be December.

In addition to the standard city and population information, a d100 rumor table is provided for spicing up encounters and providing fodder to adventurers. Some are tagged as truth, some as lies and some are left entirely to the Labyrinth Lord to decide (like whether or not the Old Brewery is truly full of ghosts who are spilling into the streets). Common phrases and gestures are also detailed.

The city is split into two Wards which are broken into Districts, with the common folk in the South Ward and the richer folk in the North Ward. The South Ward encompasses:

Baytown - This is a cutthroat neighborhood on the shores, containing locales like a cave containing a shrine to a sea god, an old witch said to produce dark magic for a fee, a tower shattered in a battle between mages and the usual crime and vice.

Wharf District - The Wharf District is a little classier, but no less chaotic, containing a theatre which has dogfights, cockfights, pitfights and even female oil wrestling. This area is also home to a group of injured ex-sailors turned beggars and a creepy thrift shop owner who can become a source of work for the right adventurers.

The Guild District - This area is a bit classier and includes a lot of business, as well as one of the better areas for Demihumans to live and work.

Oldcastle District - This area was actually the first district formed in Dolmvay, taking its name from the former seat of power in Dolmvay, which still stands to this day. This is not to be confused with Oldtower, which also stands, and is said to be cursed.

Market District - Here is where one goes to spend money, primarily, though an orphanage also rests here.

The Valenon - Dominated primarily by churches, this area also holds the Catacombs of the Dead, which the Church INSISTS is never overran by undead. It, like the sewers, receives its own chapter in the book.

The River District - This region was once heavily populated by the wealthy, before they abandoned it to the North Ward.

District of Scholars - One of the classier places in town, at least in the South Ward, it still has its seedy elements, like the theatre that was the site of a massacre of an entire acting troupe. A shoutout to OSR blogger Erik Tenkar is also here in the form of Tenkar's Tavern.

The North Ward encompasses the following:

The Palatial District - As you may have guessed, this is where the Duke of Dolmvay makes his home, and it's the most heavily patrolled (by the incorruptible Iron Wolves) and guarded area of the city.

The City Center District - The North Ward's answer to the Market District, where the wealthy unload their cash.

District of Nobles - Where the wealthy make their homes and perform their intrigues.

A number of landmarks outside the city are described, like Dungeon Rock (think fantasy Alcatraz), Plague Town (complete with a reference to the excellent Ghoul Lands supplement) and Gull Island, which wards off dovecrows for some reason.

Common factions (with generic statblocks) are provided, as are some creepier NPCs, like a mysterious doppleganger assassin and the aforementioned witch selling black magic. Extensive attention is also paid to the area businesses and taverns.

A d20 "stock city encounters" table is provided, but a series of encounters keyed to districts are also provided, with a little more detail (like a captured merman near the docks, a labor strike in the Guild District, the collateral damage of an Inquisitor versus a Witch in the markets and more. A LOT of fun encounters, some of which can spark whole adventures of their own.

The Valenon is a Vatican-esque City-State in Dolmvay, complete with people worshipping Saints rather than Gods, though they have a more badass symbol: A sword thrust into the ground, marking the line that evil shall not cross. They comprise a good and lawful sect, upholding order in the city to the best of their abilities, and while there may be corruption in their ranks, the Church as a whole is on the up and up, and will ferret out corruption in their ranks. They are also available for healing and such, but in an interesting twist, they will only provide such services on certain days (namely Holy Days)...and Raise Dead is not just a matter of raising the money, but is very much dependent on who the deceased is (with piousness trumping wealth and fame). A new spell (Detect Holy - to find potential new priests) is provided, as are a slew of relics, including their version of The Bible, Holy Mail (magical plate mail worn by the High Lawlord), the Staff of Order (also weilded by The High Lawlord) and the Font of Law and Order, which can transform the alignment of those baptized in it to Lawful. A slew of NPCs are included, as well as every Saint the Church worships, with Aspects and symbols.

Adventurers are a big deal, so the Adventurer's Guild gets its own chapter as well, describing its inner workings and providing inspiration for how it may be used in play. The Guild, and its homebase of The Isle of Heroes, provides the only true respite for Magic Users and Demihumans, and adventurers are also alloted at least access to some healing. They do take 10% of all earnings and expect adventurers to log all of their exploits with them, however. Adventurers can even pay to participate in a fully-stocked "Adventurer's Grind", kinda like a hunting trip for those who don't want to maybe run across ancient dead or diabolical demons, I suppose. The Isle of Heroes and Hall of Heroes receive extensive detail, including maps.

The sewers are out and out magical, and run deep under the city, eventually opening into bizarre chambers that are more mechanical than magical, including mechanical claws that dump metal scrap into a furnace, lightning towers and machine chambers. More random encounters are included, like giant rats and flooding chambers, as well as wererats siblings who are likely to try to join a party and stab them in the back. Several pages of maps are included as well.

Random tables are provided for NPC generation, with name tables as well as quirks and professions (with most tables being d100 tables).

The Treasures chapter provides rules for handling pick pocketing (with PCs as pick pockets or victims), as well as generating treasures, including a ton of tables for generating the household treasures of a wealthy home.

The book concludes with a helpful guide to just how to use the open content, what is actually open content, the OGL itself, and an index.

WHAT WORKS: The bulk of the information is stat-free, so it is totally usable in just about any fantasy game, not just Labyrinth Lord, with virtually no problem.  A great balance of detail and GM interpretation is presented as well. The fact that SNG not only allows, but encourages, other publishers to use the city is cool as well. And oh, dear God...I love random tables. Plus, it's Pay What You Want. Literally no reason not to check it out.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I am a big fan of the slightly Ravenloft-ish gothic horror vibe to the Small Niche Games adventures, and that vibe is almost completely absent from the Guidebook, which is a little disappointing.

CONCLUSION: As my eyes drift back more and more towards D&D and D&Desque games, The Chronicles of Amherth and the surrounding adventures all look very appealing to me, and The City of Dolmvay would be a pretty great jumping off point for that, as I have no issue going low magic. The random tables are great, and the history has a lot of callbacks to the earlier adventures in the series. It's pretty much recommended for any GM who is running a retroclone or any fantasy RPG on the lower end of the magic/power spectrum, especially since you can set the price (and for those who don't get how that works, you can "buy" it for nothing, then rebuy it for what you think is a fair price). Another great outing from Small Niche Games.