This week I am reviewing Vornheim the Complete City Kit by noted artist, gamer and porn star Zak Sabbath. Sabbath’s first claim to fame is his blog, titled “Playing D&D with Porn Stars.”
Sabbath games with people like Mandy Morbid, Satine Phoenix and even with Sasha Grey – which means he has one of the coolest gaming groups ever. To my knowledge, no actual pornography has happened during one of his group’s session. Pornography. From an ancient Greek term translating as “naughty scrolls and vases I have to hide from my parents.” Where was I? Right. Zak Sabbath’s made waves in the hobby and continues to make waves, via his blog. His approach to art, gaming and apparently having sex on camera is restlessly innovative.
In 2011 Sabbath worked with James Raggi, the man behind Lamentation’s of the Flame Princess, to develop his thoughts and the play mechanics Sabbath created for gaming in an urban setting. This led to the creation and publication of Vornheim the Complete City Kit. The work in available in hard copy and PDF – this review is of the PDF version.
Vornhiem is also the name of the principal city in Sabbath’s home game and the book nominally explores the setting. Nominally is a good term as Sabbath is not interested in providing a level of detail on the city for GPS coordinates for all the local cult sites and a map of the regular bus routes and their stops. He does not so much disparage the usually tropes into which fantasy city RPG supplements fall as simply dismiss them. These books are, as Sabbath rightly points out here and elsewhere, are too often too similar to each other even when supposedly about different cities and are too often too dense with inflexible information. If you have read about one fantasy city’s sewer system, you pretty much have read about the sewer system of all fantasy cities. For that matter, too many fantasy cities are not particularly fantastic.
The details he does provide about the city of Vornheim and its world are fascinating – his riff in the book about the skin of reptiles of all kinds is one of the best passages I have ever read in any RPG supplement. An always snow city, Vornheim consists largely of great, dark towers, which are often connected by bridges. There is a strange, timeless and dreamlike quality to the city – more than Waterdeep, Greyhawk or Sharn, Vornheim feels fantastic. You have to go to Sigil to find a city as surreal and interesting as Vornheim.
On his blog, Sabbath writes he lives in L.A. and so many of the people he hangs with are in the sex entertainment industry. One wonders where in L.A. he happens to live, as it seems unlikely porn stars and strippers populate the entire city. It would be interesting to know how living in that city influenced his gaming philosophy.
While Sabbath does provide details on the city of Vornheim, most of the book is about running a city game by making it up as you go. Sabbath employs the book to assert a GM does not need an exhaustive guide to a city to run one properly and having such a guide from the outset can be counterproductive.
Much of the book is devoted to interesting game mechanics including some great tables. For example, Vornheim the book provides a table for determine aristocrats on the fly – you can roll on the table multiple times, mixing and matching surnames and given names and disturbing quirks for the NPC in question. The items on the table for what maybe discovered when going through the pockets of the corpse range from the silly to plot hooks to the comically sad. The item on the table where the party discovers an engagement ring, and a earnest though semi-literate draft of marriage-proposal speech will elicit laughter from most players, especially if their PC are the ones who killed the man. None the less, it is a good table. Those are also the more standard mechanisms in the book – unusual ones includes special pages upon which dice are rolled and where on the page the dice stop is as import as the results of the dice for determining combat result, the size of a tower, the cost of goods and similar results. Some of my favorites are the table on vile tavern games, a diagram for working out NPC relationships and the table on fortunes for the party. And kudos to Sabbath for writing that the GM master and the players and may determine the fulfillment of a prophecy.
Vornheim employs some D&D game mechanics in some places, but only loosely – these are changeable to another edition or even a different game system with minimal effort. Most of the tables and mechanics suggested here is system neutral.
Sabbath’s actual job is an artist and he provides the art for this book, which is stylized and abstract. Normally I dislike this style of art, but Sabbath imbues the art with a vitality and sense of story stylized art usually lacks. Some of the best pieces are the medusa on page 14 and depictions of the Eminent Cathedral and the Palace Massive. To keep the price down the book is black and white, and while not a strike against Vornheim it is unfortunate because elsewhere Sabbath use of color is striking.
This book possesses flaws. First up – and this is a subjective matter – there are almost no appearances from elves, dwarves or other fantasy races. Except for a few scant mentions in some of the tables, the fantasy races make no appearance in the book. However, this is easily fixed and the nature of the work means it can easily become about a city of elves, goblins or something else.
A more severe problem is the interior arrangement of Vornheim, as a book, feels random. This is somewhat ameliorated by a good table of contents, but there is no discernable pattern to the sequence of sections in the book or how one sections leads to another. There are good ideas here – some brilliant ones – but difficulty in getting to those ideas hobbles the books utility.
Vornheim, as a book, is not a fictional tour guide to a place the players cannot ever actually visit. It is about running urban games in a quick and energetic manner, where the rules and text do not hold back the flow of the actual game. In that it is succeeds quite well.
I give Vornheim the Complete City Kit, a 15 on a d20 roll. It is quite good at what it does and is valuable for accomplishing its goals and what the book offers gamers. However, it is held back somewhat by a singular focus on humans and an organization that feels slapdash at times. Still, it is worth the purchase price and is available at the D&D with Porn Star site and at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess sites.
[4 of 5 Stars!]