Author: Zak S.
Retail Price: $19.99
Zak S. is a polarizing figure; people tend to love him or hate him. This is a review of a book that he wrote, not a review of him, his detractors’ opinions of him, or any of the controversies between them.
Since its release, Vornheim has been much-lauded by the OSR community. Most of its reviews are very positive. Many of these reviews offer nary a word of criticism. It’s not that there are not positive reviews that note some shortcomings, or even the occasional negative review, but they are far rarer. I penned this review because I think that Vornheim is a product sure to disappoint most old-school gamers. Vornheim’s many flaws exceed its very modest virtues. It is poorly organized, too fragmentary to serve its stated purpose of providing a complete city toolkit, and its content is too eccentric to be of use to most referees. Vornheim deserves a fair-minded review that identifies these failings in detail. This is that review.
Vornheim states that its intended purpose is to provide a referee with the tools necessary to run a city adventure “with a minimum of hassle, so you and your players can get to the good stuff.” It is meant to be a “kit” to facilitate the creation of a city “even in the middle of the game.” But it does so within the context of a particular city, Vornheim.
The book gives some general notes on Vornheim and neighboring locales; details three specific locations in the city—a medusa’s lair, wondrous zoo, and library; provides rules or guidelines about navigating in a city, generating building floorplans, the law, non-player character contacts, chases, items costs, and libraries; and includes several random tables regarding aristocrats, books, non-player characters, random encounters, fortune-telling, searching corpses, magical effects, types of buildings, and other subjects. In addition to these contents, the interior of the dustjacket contains a map of a significant portion of the city. The front and back covers of the book contain charts for generating certain random results, such as the hit location of an attack, by dropping a four-sided die on the covers.
The dustjacket art is in color and depicts an androgynous figure battling a peryton with a flail. The dustjacket’s interior city map also is in color. The remainder of the book's art and diagrams are in black and white.
Almost a third of the book—21 of its 64 pages—is devoted to three very specific locations within the city: the House of the Medusa, Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and the Library of Zorlac. These are effectively three adventure locations or miniature adventure modules, for lack of a better description.
Vornheim has a sensibility reminiscent of dark, weird fairy tales. For example:
- a nearby goblin city’s inhabitants are said to “speak backwards and walk on the ceiling”;
- a horned goddess’s priesthood once built their temples in “colossal goat-like creatures”; and
- there are scholars who can read the skins of snakes like books, some are cookbooks.
There is a section on superstitions, which are intended to flesh out the city’s culture. For example:
- “Cows are considered indolent and undesirable. Anyone bringing a live cow into Vornheim will lose a shoe within a week.”
- “Pigs must be present at all trials.”
- “No dog will be faithful to someone who gives leftovers to a crow.”
There are two pages of “player commentaries,” which are observations about the campaign made by Zak’s players. These provide brief glimpses of their experiences in and perceptions of Vornheim.
The city map and building diagrams in the book are somewhat impressionistic in appearance. Readers accustomed to clean, precise maps and floorplans will find little that is familiar. The book does, however, include a shortcut method of generating rudimentary floorplans for ordinary buildings.
The book provides mechanics for “urban-crawling.” These are intended for situations in which adventurers are traveling through the city but their movement is hindered in some manner (e.g., chases, evasions, searches, hostile locals, civil disorder). These mechanics includes guidelines for creating neighborhood boundaries and determining street layouts and destination locations within the city on the fly.
The overview should make plain that which is obvious from a quick perusal of the book—Vornheim is very incomplete. Most of the city is left undescribed and undetailed. Apart from the very few locations that are detailed, the referee is left to his own devices other than some thematic notes that often have no immediate game application and some random tables. Zak pitches the spare amount of detail as a virtue, avoiding the exhaustive treatment of the typical city supplement. But he merely replaces too much detail with not enough. The result is a setting too fragmentary to run as written.
As an example of its fragmentary and disorganized nature, consider the Church of Vorn. One gathers that it is a significant force within the city, but the book gives little detail about it. We know only that:
- its cathedral is a significant feature of the inner city, and there is an impressionistic diagram of it;
- Vorn is a grim god of iron, rust, and rain;
- the color brown “is reserved by Vorn, to use on rust” and thus wearing it is taboo;
- the tenets of their faith require priests of Vorn to use edged weapons rather than blunt ones, as they regard attacking with the latter hypocritical, and they lose a memorized spell if they transgress this tenet;
- the church may or may not be corrupt, prone to fanaticism, or in the grip of occult influences; and
- the church administers trial by combat, in which the combatants fight in pools of waist-height rusty water.
These sketchy details are interesting. But they are more of a beginning, not the finished product that should appear in published work. A good referee would need to flesh these ideas out for use.
Moreover, this organized summary of the church also belies the haphazard presentation of this material. These details appear in various sections of the book across pages 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 32, and 59. Instead of getting an organized paragraph or two of material or a bullet-point summary, the reader has to search this information out and organize it for himself. A more useful approach would have been to place this information on the page opposite the diagram of the cathedral, so that it could be quickly read and later accessed for reference as necessary.
This haphazard presentation is a consistent feature of the book. Recall the inexplicable superstition that pigs must be present at trial? That appears on page 10 without context; on page 59 we learn that the people of Vornheim believe that pigs are the only honest animal. They sometimes conduct trials by a ritual known as trial by swine:
7 pigs are tied to the defendant by 10’ ropes and the defendant must go about his or her business in this way for 12 days. If the defendant cuts the ropes, leaves the city, or goes mad, s/he is guilty.
Set aside the silliness of this procedure, why are these details separated by 58 pages? Zak does not need this material to appear in one place; it’s his setting. But this disorganization is a nightmare for another referee who wants to run Vornheim. A referee who wants to make this material his own is going to have to devote a lot of time to this book.
This is not a minor fault. The haphazard presentation is exacerbated by other shortcomings—small font sizes, less than ideal formatting and layout, a hard-to-read table of contents, and lack of an index. The end result is that the book is a chore to navigate and its contents are hard to digest. All of this undermines the book’s stated purpose of assisting the referee to run city adventurers with “a minimum of hassle.”
Setting aside the manner of presentation, the contents are an odd hodgepodge for a supplement that bills itself as a “complete city kit.” As noted, roughly a third of the book is devoted to three specific locations that effectively serve as miniature adventure modules. In a larger supplement, this sort of material would be welcome. But if one only has 64 pages to provide the tools necessary to run urban adventure on the fly, the inclusion of this material is a mistake. The space is needed for other, more essential matters.
The particular locations included are creative. But Zak’s vision is an eccentric one. The inclusion of a medusa with a manor is consistent with the dark, weird fairy-tale sensibility of the book. Opinions will vary on whether this sensibility is an asset or a liability. It has limited appeal for me. More to the point, Zak’s creative vision is well enough outside of the mainstream of fantasy gaming—even broadly defined—that most referees will not share his sensibility. He references Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as inspiration for Vornheim’s legal system. That should suffice to give one a feel for how bizarre the setting can be and how out of step it is with most old-school campaigns.
Some of the material in the book is difficult to describe as anything more than filler. Inclusion of the player commentaries section is baffling given the space limitations. Consider these two comments:
- On Vornheim’s taverns: “When I went out in Vornheim I had too much to drink. I had a good time, but I had so much to drink that I probably would’ve had a good time anywhere.”
- On Vornheim’s NPCs: “Those random guys are fun. . . . I always end up having sex with them to get information and then there isn’t any information. Like I’ll have sex with the vet to have drugs and there’s no drugs.”
I suppose this is the kind of thing that is bound to happen in Zak’s game; his players are porn stars. But of what conceivable use is this information to other referees? The question answers itself.
Other material, if not filler, is still of no use to time-pressed referees and will not be of interest to players. Most of the superstitions fall into this category. By way of illustration: “All cakes must be tasted by the oldest person in the room first, or else they will taste like fish. Except fishcakes, which will taste like rye.”
The last half of the book is devoted to mechanics and tables that are supposed to assist a referee to run urban adventures off the cuff. The tables likely are the most readily usable by other referees. But they once again reflect Zak’s unconventional tastes. Two pages are devoted to generating random aristocrats, and supply details like: “has a peculiar fondness for injured women,” “compulsively shaves women bald,” “only finds joy in the sound of innocent women crying,” and “bathes in the liquefied bone of young maidens.” Not all of the results are this weird, but enough are that it reduces the usefulness of the table. The table devoted to the random generation of non-player characters is equally oddball, including results like: “is a random PC’s mother in disguise,” “is secretly a creative genius on the level of William Shakespeare,” “vomits often” for no reason, and “has an unusually well-maintained collection of doll houses.”
Doubtless this material suits Zak’s style. It is unsuited in most others’ though. The net result is that the tables—which span 17 pages—are of limited use to others. The best that could be said for these tables as a whole is that they might serve as examples to referees for the creation of their own tables. Regardless of differences in taste, however, a true “complete city kit” would have to include more tables on a wider variety of subjects.
Of the mechanics presented in the book, the “urban-crawling” rules have received the most praise. I think they could be used, but very little space is devoted to them—just two pages. This material would have benefited from a more expanded treatment, given how important it is to a city kit that does not feature a complete map of the city. These rules would be less useful, arguably not useful at all, for referees who have fully mapped their own city setting.
Zak’s decision to try to make the entire book useful, including its covers and dustjacket, is innovative. But not all innovation is good. One of the cover charts does no more than simulate a d20 attack roll and its corresponding damage (as well as hit location if desired) through the mechanic of dropping a d4 on the cover. How is this an improvement over just rolling standard attack and damage dice simultaneously? It is not, of course.
I have left the artwork for last, because an assessment of it is much more subjective. As a purely descriptive matter, it is not old-school. Zak's style has nothing in common with artists commonly associated with old-school gaming (e.g., Peter Mullen, Erol Otus). I find it crude and unappealing. But judge for yourself:
Whatever one thinks of its artistic merit, this is less utilitarian than a traditional map. Perhaps the best than can be said for this map is that you get what you pay for and the price point is relatively low.
Vornheim is creative, more creative than many other OSR products. But this is a two-edged sword. Its creative direction sharply diverges from what most old-school gamers will find to their tastes.
It is mislabeled. It is not a “complete city kit” by any definition. It utterly fails to realize its stated purpose.
If Vornheim is any indication, Zak has an artistic bent. Vornheim would have benefited from a critical, right-brained editor or collaborator. The absence of such input is apparent from the poor focus, disorganization, and inclusion of much material that is of little or no practical value game-wise.
Vornheim is not entirely bereft of merit. It could be mined for ideas. But mining is hard labor, and the gold in these hills is sparse indeed. A good supplement should save the referee time and work. Vornheim does not.
This book is a missed opportunity. A well-done book that is half city setting and half toolkit for running urban adventures there (and elsewhere) would be very useful. Vornheim is not that book.