A welcome change of pace, Wolfgang Baur's Free City of Zobeck is broad-based enough to find a place in most medieval fantasy campaigns, but carries a distinct feel and flavor which will make it memorable and interesting to most players.
SO, WHAT'S GOOD HERE?
The gazetteer format works in Zobeck's favor. Everything here is overview-level, with longtime D&D author Wolfgang Baur playing tour guide for all the notable elements of the setting. Baur's prose is agile and engaging, as usual, whether he's describing the history of Zobeck's free-city status, introducing the major inns and taverns in Zobeck, or describing some of the more nefarious traps you might run afoul of in Zobeck's kobold ghetto.
While most game author's descriptions of settings can seem self-indulgent, tedious or irrelevant, Baur has a knack for making the reader understand why some particular detail is cool or noteworthy. Baur manages to make you see the many possibilities for the setting that he sees.
As an overview, the Zobeck presented here is essentially system-less. It's clearly intended as a D&D setting, but nothing in the Zobeck Gazetteer absolutely requires the D&D rules. With time, and a little creative adaptation, you could be using Zobeck in your True20/Fudge/RuneQuest/Whatever fantasy setting by next week's session.
The eastern-european flavor of Zobeck is handled particularly well. Unlike many "flavored" city settings, Zobeck still works well as a one-stop city setting for an ongoing archetypal D&D campaign -- yet the things which make Zobeck different are always quietly arrayed around the players at every point.
It doesn't feel like a "foreign city" at all, but most players will eventually realize that Zobeck has a different history informing it than most of the fantasy cities they've adventured through ... You and your players can happily use all the D&D standard classes and variants you know and love; Zobeck will embrace them. Instead of forbidding story elements, the Zobeck setting merely adds its own.
In Zobeck, you have a D&D fantasy city influenced by the east-european folklore of Wolfgang Baur's German-Polish roots. It's a city of hussars and dwarven mercenaries, clockwork golems, kobold kings and clans living (uneasily at times) among men, centaur tribesmen roaming the wild lands beyond the city, and pro-active (some would say meddlesome) gods who regularly interact with their followers and expect more from them than mere lip-service rituals and tithes.
The gods of Zobeck are a particular breath of fresh air here, in a setting defined by clever inspirations. Baur has introduced a lively pantheon with specific appeal for adventuring players, whether they play a cleric, or not. These gods are drawn heavily from east-european mythology (for example, Perun here is Thor, for all intents and puposes, just as he was for many parts of eastern Europe in past centuries), but these Zobeck gods are also intentionally "D&D-ized" to make them interesting to players.
As above, the gods of Zobeck are not the same aloof, disinterested "worship-vampires" seen in most D&D settings. The gods of Zobeck are very interested in the mortal realm, and in what goes on there. Each god of Zobeck listing has a section titled "What The God Demands". Players used to writing a fantasy deity's name on a character sheet and then forgetting about it until a roll for resurrection becomes necessary may be in for a surprise here. To have a divine patron in Zobeck is a double-edged sword -- they may actually notice when you need them, but chances are, they may actually require specific things from you at times, also.
WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD HERE?
Well, it is a Gazetteer. An overview. Customers who absolutely demand fully-statted major NPCs for Zobeck, write-ups for the Hussars, and full disclosure on all other such player-level details will be disappointed in the Zobeck Gazetter. Notable figures are given Names and D&D 3.5 levels, but the rest is left to the DM.
There are D&D 3.5 stats for some common clockwork creatures, and an introduction to the Clockwork Magic (including spells) which plays a significant role in the flavor of the Zobeck setting. But DMs who want more, more, more hard detail on all things Zobeck would do well to seek out relevant issues of the Kobold Quarterly magazine (also available as a PDF here on RPGNow). It's the only place more Zobeck detail is publically available right now.
In short, the Zobeck Gazetteer gave me more setting fine detail than I expected from something called a Gazetteer, but those gamers who will not settle for anything less than a fully-detailed city setting for their money will find Zobeck lacking,
In the Zobeck Gazetteer's defense, however, it _never_ claims to be an exhaustive product. The fault, then, lies more in the expectations of certain buyers, than in the product itself.
If you like the look of what I've described above, and you like what you've seen in the "Full Size Preview" PDF linked on the RPGNow product page, just buy it.
Fantasy cities seem to be coming back into gaming-product vogue again, of late, but this one made an impression on me that has managed to stay. It's not only well-made and well-written, but it manages to offer much, yet require little.
For example, I don't give two coppers for clockwork magic as a concept, personally -- but it works very well as part of everything that makes Zobeck noteworthy, so it will stay in the background in my games, another passive element which makes the setting unique.
I guess this is what I like most about Zobeck in the end -- it has a very unique flavor, but it's always left up to _you_ to decide how much that flavor will impact your D&D game. Will it be central, or will it be merely be ambient setting? The answer, happily, is -- it's up to you and your players.
A good offering. Recommended for those who want something fresh and intriguing which can still "play nice" in your standard D&D campaign world.