Cityscape

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RPGs

So I’ve borrowed a copy of the Cityscape D&D book from one of the other guys in the group to look it over with an eye towards using it in developing the urban areas of my campaign world. I’ve got a few more books of this nature that I’ve been meaning to give a thorough reading so I can get some good ideas and plan out cities for my campaign settings. As I was looking through it I took some time to write down some notes on bits of the book that I found notable.

The book starts off with some basic notes on who it’s geared towards — Mostly it seems to be saying that it’s geared towards DMs but has the usual D&D book feats, spells, and Prestige Classes so that munchkins can grab something from it. The Amazon reviews I read on the book expressed a similar sort of disappointment that the book would split its attention in this way: What I really want is a guidebook for constructing unique but realistic cities and villages for a campaign setting, not a bunch of munchkin mechanics.

The first bit of the book is sample cities — Nothing spectacular, but with nice looking maps and some NPCs and descriptions of the city. Probably good for [plotwise] small cities which the PCs may pass through and only see one or two locations within.

After that the book moves on to city-based subjects that gave me a few ideas to think about: Sanitation conditions for various areas of a city, use of sewers, aqueducts, canals, wells, and so on. The book also got me thinking about news distribution channels, public transportation (if any), and law enforcement / laws. The next couple of sections brought up environmental hazards, and there were a few useful ones, such as acid rain/fog, and deadly molds. The book seems to posit the later ones as problems for the PCs in and of themselves, although personally I think getting killed by mold would be a bit anti-climactic. Still they’re the kinds of things that would bother people who live in a location and might need outside expertise to solve.

Some ridiculous rules:
-In areas lit by lanterns, the book recommends the possibility of lantern smoke as an environmental hazard. The lantern smoke gives something like a -2 penalty to rolls and requires a fortitude save against coughing. Pretty extreme for lantern smoke considering the number of magical/supernatural effects that only give you a -1 or -2 on rolls. (Though that does give me an idea about penalizing spot checks and so forth in a smoke-filled barroom or similar situations).
-The book gives the example of potholes as an environmental hazard. A pothole 2-3 feet in diameter is listed as having a DC10 check to spot and a DC15 Reflex save to avoid. So you’ve got roughly a 50-50 chance of seeing a 2-3 foot hole in the ground and a 75% chance to fall in. Falling in gives you -2 to your Dexterity and reduces your speed by 5ft. That is one deadly pothole.
-As usual, the D20 wealth stuff seems pretty ridiculous. Your average meal is running around a silver, yet an expensive bottle of Elven wine can cost as much as a low-moderate quality house. Maybe this is an appropriate distinction between wealth and poverty, but D&D really ought to run in a more moderate zone for average wealth levels of the PCs.

The book then goes through a list of potential “districts” that one can plop down in a city. This is one of the better sections of the book, as it gives types of districts and descriptions of each district type, as well as a plot hook that could be used if the PCs are just looking for something to do. The main problem I have with this section is that it gives no real guidance on how to create a city from these districts. The introductory part of this section says that a district comprises roughly 300-600 people and that a small city will have twenty districts, whereas a large city will have fourty and a metropolis will have eighty. Maybe it’s just me but I consider this approach a bit too freeform. What districts should pretty much every city have? What proportion of residential and commercial districts should there be? Even a little more in the way of guidelines here would have really improved my opinion of this section.

I have to say that probably my favorite “section” in the book are the little asides in the text boxes. These aren’t sections per-se but little half-page or so boxes that describe situations and give some pretty useful ideas or rules or descriptions to handle them. For example, page 42 has the “City Sights” interlude with 20 descriptions of things that would be happening in the city that you could use for spontaneous flavor. Page 44 has an interlude on how to make trips to the tavern interesting, going over things you can do in the tavern like drinking, armwrestling and other games, performing, and so on.

At this point we’re only 50 pages into the book. Unfortunately, the next 50 pages … I didn’t really find much that I liked there. It seems to be a big mishmash, with some canned text about various races and how they might fit into a city mixed in with new feats/spells. Around page 70 we get into some fairly generic descriptions of city governments and organizations intermixed with prestige classes. What’s pretty strange to me is that the chapter treats noble houses, guilds, and “organizations” as separate entities — there’s even a subsection specifically for churches even though there were already subsections for “religious guild” and “religious organization” previously. Either way, this chapter was a loss for me, the only useful bits being the sample NPCs provided to represent the organizations.

The next chapter is decently useful, going briefly over the types of events that might occur in the city and providing lots of sample NPCs for fights. I’m not so interested in “monsters” within cities, so that bit wasn’t useful to me.

All in all I was kind of underwhelmed with the book. Even though it comes in at about 150 pages it could have easily been boiled down to 50 or so. It’s pretty short on mechanics and the mechanics it does have are those that I specifically don’t want — I don’t care about having special doodad powers or statblocks for monsters, I want mechanics for generating cities, city components, special features, figuring out organizations and politics and all that. Naturally all of the things I want are treated in a paragraph of vague text. So I’m pretty glad I didn’t purchase the book, though some bits are nice enough that I may want to borrow the book again in the future.

Update: I uploaded an archive containing all of the art from the Cityscape book that I downloaded from Wizards’ website. Download here.

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