Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, First Review

Author and artist Zak Sabbath must be the love child of Bill Sienckiewicz, David Macauley, Paolo Soleri, Dr. Seuss, and Richard Scarry. All six of those artists create layouts so complex and unexpected, so far outside the box that after flipping to a new page of art or diagrams the reader's first reaction is often to stare at it wondering "What the Hell am I looking at?" (and where's Goldbug?) After which the light bulb comes on, we are enlightened, and our concept of the world expands.

The covers of Vornheim: The Complete City Kit are random generators. The inside of the dust jacket is an intricately drawn map of the city that looks like an etching. Palaces and cathedrals look like a bizarre, titanic cyborg hands. The wilderness map looks like a quilty patchwork of expressionistically drawn city blocks. A house map is keyed with illustrations of each room's contents. Page 18 has possibly my favorite small dungeon map ever, in simplified, stylized 3D, again with illustrations of the contents. Cross-sections, silhouettes, tables, a diagram for randomly generating NPC relationships capable of generating stories, a flowchart for searching a library, and simply impossible, gravity-defying, fantasy construction of towers, bridges, arches, and flying buttresses stacked into off-balance, phantasmagorically teetering architectural piles . . . and that's before we consider the pages and pages of surprising encounters and provocative tables.

And all in a small, dense, sixty-four page hard-cover book.

Zak, James, Darren, Mandy, Maria, and the playtesters have crafted a great sandbox and improv-generation aid for DMs who want to run city adventures - and for the many DMs who don't want to yet but will if they immerse themselves in the spirit of this book.

Vornheim colors far outside the lines of recent mainstream gaming, which uses crisp art and text to lead the DM and players by the nose through scripted rules and adventures. Instead, Vornheim is Byzantine, brilliant, and exhilarating, a return to the original do-it-yourself, hobbyist tradition of stimulating the DM's imagination until he or she bubbles over with ideas and an urge to run games that express them, games that in turn excite and stimulate the players to take the game in unexpected directions, fresher than any pre-planned script can be. Vornheim is a big gift to gaming in a little package.

Vornheim is a valuable addition to the small but growing group of recent gaming releases that proves the reality and worth of the old school renaissance. Surely gaming awards are coming its way over the course of the next year. Congratulations to Zak, James, and the rest of the team. Well done!

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