A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


Review: Vornheim: The Complete City Kit

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on June 20, 2012

Tagged: vornheim zaksmith lotfp osr

A Map from Vornheim

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit was the last book in my recent LotFP shipment I read.1 Zak Smith has packaged some of the things he’s learned running city based adventures into this short treatise. The book is more or less clearly delineated in to two parts: the book begins with the Vornheim of Zak’s adventures, a crazy-ass city; the book ends with how to build your own Vornheim. Both sections work well together to produce a terse look at city adventuring.

To quote Zak, “This book is not about Vornheim, it’s about running Vornheim.” The city is described at a high level. After reading the book I know that Vornheim is a sprawling city of towers and bridges with a massive palace (called the Palace Massive!), a giant cathedral, and a wyvern that lives in a well who answers questions. There is the sort of detail about the city and its culture you might find covered in a few pages of a guide book. You learn enough about Vornheim to have a rough sense of what it’s like, but not so much you feel like you’re memorizing names and places.

The opening of the book is followed by a detailed look at three buildings/areas in the city: the home of a medusa, the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and the Library of Zorlac. These are presented in much the same way a small dungeon would be presented in an old school D&D module: maps, room descriptions, monster stats, and some background. I feel these mini-modules serve two purposes: they provide more insight in to what Vornheim is like, and present good examples of what traditional dungeon crawl adventures would look like when moved to a city. All three set pieces are unique and interesting. Even if you have no interest in adventuring in the city, they’d probably bo worth stealing and injecting into your campaign.

Smith presents just enough flavour for the reader to extrapolate what other parts of the city would probably be like, how NPCs not mentioned probably would behave. If you want to play a game in Vornheim, there is enough information for you to make the city your own. You can have your own “official” Vornheim that grows organically from play.

What makes the book work is that Smith then goes on to show you how to go about running a city game. The later half of Vornheim is where it really shines. The book ends with procedures and tables to aid a GM when running a city adventure. It’s quite clear Vornheim is meant to be used at the gaming table: it’s nice and small; all the tables for the DM are at the very back of the book, one after another; the book’s cover itself is a gaming aid, meant to have diced rolled on it. In the D&D Next play test I participated in, our DM used the “I search the body” table to good effect. I’ll have more to say once about this side of things once i’ve actually used it in a game.

I actually can’t think of another book that fills this niche. The Advanced Fighting Fantasy book Blacksand is certainly similar. (It outlines a fictional city and discusses running city adventures.) Blacksand seemed to encourage building out your city before hand.2 As such, it doesn’t lend itself to helping you creating a realistic sprawling mess of a city the same way Vornheim does. Still, if you’re looking for something else about this subject it’s definitely worth a look.3

I do have one complaint with Vornheim, and that is its solid black margins.4 There are other layout choices that probably would have helped make the book more legible. It sometimes feels a bit too dense. Smith’s paintings also seem to be particularly dense, so in some ways one can view the book as an extension of his artwork. You can definitely tell it is his book.

I don’t think I’ve read a bad review of Vornheim. It’s something like $15 so i’m not sure why you wouldn’t have bought it already. If you’ve been waiting patiently for my opinion on the matter, now you have it: go buy this book.

Update 2019: my thoughts on this book haven’t changed much, but my thoughts about Zak have.

  1. I finished reading Carcosa a few days ago, and I feel like I have so many things I want to say about it I don’t know where to start. Vornheim is a much easier book to grok. Expect one or more posts about Carcosa in the coming days or weeks. 

  2. I recall drawing out a small “city” and listing what each of its 100 or so buildings were back when I was a boy. 

  3. The rights to this book, and others in the Advanced Fighting Fantasy series appear to be owned by Arion Games now. 

  4. Why, god damn it? Why?