[Review] Vornheim (Loftp); Lesser then the sum of its parts

[Campaign setting/Sourcebook]
Vornheim (2011)

Zak S. (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Summary: Lankhmar + New Crobuzon + Ghormengast + Viriconium

I have promised to check out DCC by Harley Stroh but the reviewing Blitzkrieg continues and some things are simply too important to leave behind. Today we are checking out Vornheim, the ultimate city-kit by loveable award-winning avant-garde greasy raggamuffin Zak S. Vornheim, like everything OSR related Zak has ever done, generated massive acclaim from various sources and forms one of the foundational pillars of James Raggi’s 4th Elf Reich. However, we are underground and awards do not scare us, so we dig in with open eyes and thirsty knives.

Vornheim; The Complete City Kit is meant not only as a campaign setting (in this aspect it succeeds admirably), but also as a sort of how-too book on running city games and quickly generating cityplans, floorplans, NPCs and so on. The third part consists, of course, of random tables.

We begin, as is no more then tradition with a Zak S product, with an ugly map. Cubist scribbles and angular letters. Ugh. Several locations are described with terse evocative sentences to give the titular Grey Maze some context.

A plain near the town of two great armies stand enmeshed and unmoving in a white web, held unchanging in the midst of mutual slaughter. The forces of the mad wizard Gorth and a hybrid band of desperate allies scraped together to oppose him have faced each other thus for 4,000 years. One day the white strands will fray, the battle will continue, and the ancient forces of Gorth the Unfathomable will once more seek to maraud, to devastate, and to overthrow.

And so on and so forth. Good stuff. A later Appendix N takes up an admirable 1/3 of a page references several works of inspiration beyond the Leiber, Moorcock & Vance one would expect from the usual OSR adherant. Mevielle’s the City and Harrison’s Viriconium are mentioned, authors requiring further investigation on my part, and we see echoes of their work reflected in the baroque towers of Vornheim wherever we go.

Vornheim proper is an interesting city of snow-covered gothic towers, absurd social customs and decadent aristocrats, centred very strongly around the themes of ennui, madness and slow decay. It is brimming with the wonderous and the supernatural without falling into the trap of making it appear mundane by ubiquity or wearing out the reader.
Snakes may be read like books, horrific medieval demons lurk in dark alleys, strange, colorful figures follow petty intrigues and the lives of its many inhabitants are governed by an inordinate number of absurd superstitions. It reminds me somewhat of the write up I did on The Free City of Muir (faggoty self-link), though the observant reader will note the general concept has been executed with somewhat differing themes and much much more adjectives.

In less then 10 pages, the theme and mood of a city is admirably and succinctly conveyed by the elements that most exemplify its general atmosphere and theme. Neat. Some unique creatures are mentioned, though they do not receive write-ups or stats sadly (one may filch them from the author’s blog if desired). A very welcome concession to practicality and utility where often the Citybook tends to fall in the pit trap of exhaustive encyclopedic detail with nary a hook nor adventuring seed to inspire the suffering GM (Judges Guild’s City State skirts the line at times but provides so many hooks for adventuring that it’s phone-book levels of description achieve a potency in and of itself).

8. Keeps a monkey in his/her shop whom s/he despises, anyone kind to the monkey will be gouged, anyone cruel to the monkey will get great prices.

What follows next is arguably the most worthwhile part of the book, 3 short adventure locations that are described with an efficiency that by all accounts should become the OSR industry standard, as well as creativity, innovation and godawful maps that are hard to make sense of. After you have successfully decrypted the maps with your non-euclidean cytologist friends, you are good for at least 3 sessions of fun, in less then 20 pages. A decent mileage.

The first location is the house of a medusa crime lord, suitable for a breaking and entering scenario if one is so inclined, and the sweet sweet murder of adversaries if one knows better then that. It contrasts well with the dwelling of the aforementioned Joop van Ooms in that it, take note, IS SUITABLE FOR SUCH AN ADVENTURE JAMES, having among other things, the odd secret door, traps, treasure, unique adversaries and diverting window dressing to make it feel alive. Levels 1-4. Decent adventure location delivered with admirable brevity.

91. Amateur psychiatrist – constantly trying to psychoanalyze the PCs whenever they meet. Fears pirates.

The second location is the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and here we see Zak play to his strengths (a rebellious refusal to abide by long-standing DnD tropes, a fecund creativity inspired by an artists’ hatred of standardization and an Appendix N that is at least a standard deviation from the norm, if not two). Also we may read/understand the map since it follows the isomorphic template that briefly become popular in late 2nd edition and has regrettably not made a comeback since.
A menagerie dungeon of unique creatures that requires players to discover their hidden opponent in order to not fucking die. It is in keeping with Vornheim in that it is really fucking weird. I hesitate to call upon some author or another for the precise flavor of weird this is going for but this is good stuff is what I am saying. Good concept, well-executed, plenty of bizarre antagonists to unleash upon the players and most importantly, the antagonists have a reason for being there. Animals may be sold if they are taken alive, adding that extra bit of puzzazz to what could very easily degenerate into an extermination campaign against malformed abominations. Excellent non-conventional adventure for character levels 4-7 with never a dull moment or reliance upon worn tropes suitable for an evening of fun. Estimated death toll about 0-2 players. If stand alone, would be about an 8-9.

d10 escaped Face Rats – rats specially bred by envious courtiers to destroy the beautiful. They will attack eyes, noses, ears, etc. Alchemical element in their saliva prevents facial wounds from fully healing. The hp damage can be healed but the disfiguring effects can only be cured by Remove Curse or similar magic.

The third is the library of Zorlac, philosopher, who employs thieves to steal any books he does not have a copy of. Because of his paranoia, scholars are forbidden from entering any section but their own and all sections are separated from eachother via secret doors. Only by solving cryptic puzzles may these doors be opened (bordering on adventure game logic at times). Again, a great place to break into provided you have got yourself a good hook, with advice given on how to maximize the effectiveness of the library proper. Once again, the map is cumbersome and awkward and would benefit from some fucking clarity.
Excellent addition; Almost all the NPCs within the library have unique abilities, dispositions and some notes on how they may be bribed most effectively. Char levels 4-7. Nice notes, but tricky to utilize properly.

One note that needs to be remarked upon so others will mayhaps utilize it in their future publications is the efficiency with which the necessary information is presented (sort of like a reverse PrinceofNothing sentence). Stats blocks contain nothing but the bare essentials. The sick and deeply obsessive d20 format is avoided in favor of clear, elegant description and the bare minimum of necessary mechanics.

We now arrive in the second part of the book, beginning with the player commentaries.

F: If I was a hairdresser in Vornheim I would probably shave all of their heads except the top so they could have a ponytail coming from the top of their head. If a duchess came in and wanted a special haircut for a ball then I wouldn’t cut it, I would dye it. I would braid it and make it crazy and big and people would be like “What the fuck, my hair’s so crazy, nobody else could have this hair because I’m that important!”

2 pages of irrelevant tripe. But let us dig into substance. The idea behind the second section is to teach you how to run Vornheim or any other large fantasy metropolis and do so on the fly. In an admirable concession to the actual modes of play, Vornheim is, sans its major geographical features, largely meant to be amorphous and discovered through play.

I have some reservations. If we are meant to determine the number of neighbourhoods beforehand and subsequently determine matters like thoroughfares and important features randomly, as well as wealth levels, what we end with is a smorgasboard of seemingly random tossfiddle with haphazard connectivity. If we, as the work suggests, do actual work beforehand and put thought into it the tool becomes useless since it is meant to be on an improvisational basis. Mapping the city as a network of thoroughfares with nodes containing certain elements seems advisable and useful but assigning these at random particularly if they are of importance seems a task better left to the humble GM. If one needs to know where a certain building is, why is this choice left to random chance when the GM, who has more information on the place then any of the players, can quickly make an informed decision? But perhaps I fail to properly conceive the merits behind the semi-procedurally generated city-state.

Anti – trial: Some friend of the defendant is legally bound to masquerade as his lawyer and attempt to persuade an unknowing jury that the defendant is guilty while the accuser must attempt to prove the defendant innocent. If the verdict is guilty, the defendant is considered innocent and vice versa. This practice is believed to increase sympathy for those with opposing points of view.

What is very usefull are the guidelines/rules on random encounters (once per neighbourhood crossing), asking directions (good old interaction check followed by random table in case of failure), the distinction between crawling and moving, ways of quickly generating street plans (roll dice + GM discretion) and the odd rule for quickly generating floorplans. That floorplan rule is nice and dandy, but one should think the content of the rooms, not the layout, to be the main concern (Edit: Of course there was a fucking table to do so, stupid stupid stupid).
Procedures on the Law in Vornheim are excellent and varied, costs for lawyers are provided but no quick and dirty way of resolving them, making the addition of stat generation rules for the lawyers a bit of a tease. Some noteables include the Anti-trial, the Trial by Drama, the Trial by Assasin and the Trial by Pie, all of which should provide for excellent and diverting adventure and generate gameplay, rather then punishing the hated player for his moral turpitude. And rules for gaining contacts! Which you may generate using the random tables!

PCs notice a frightened and wild-eyed girl run past, one arm dyed blue – marking her as an inmate at a lunatic asylum. A block or two later they’ll notice another dyed fugitive, and then another. A powerful inmate has engineered a mass escape

I could go on or gripe about the silly ad-hoc price rules that are pushing it and would take more time to memorize then an educated guess at the price rules but my central assesment is this. Vornheim bills itself as the Complete City Kit. A more accurate description would have been the Essential City Kit, since it covers, with admirable brevity and efficiency, all the essentials that are almost certain to come up during an extended city campaign. It does not waste your time with endless lint-counting and cruff.  The random tables are tinged with the atmosphere of Vornheim and thus Zak’s distinctive paw prints but the principles are universal and easily adapted.
One should point out that many of the procedures are quick and dirty solutions, meant to be used during play with a minimum of fuss and not overly concerned with versimilitude or hair-fine integration with myriad other game mechanics. And that is fine..
We end with a mini-game that uses chess to resolve factional conflicts but whatever, too specific, not interesting if you and all of your players are not into chess. Dice plz.

Large Chess : A bizarre and repugnant upper class indulgence. A form of half life-sized chess played on an enormous board where the role of each piece is played by a member of a species of pale, drooling, nearly braindead halfling, specifically bred for the purpose, dressed in the garb appropriate to the piece they are supposed to represent.

We end with a full third of the book consisting of tables. Overall very inventive tables. If you like tables. Tables covering everything from the generation of NPC interrelationships to the quirks of shopkeepers. Random hooks, random loot, random NPCs, and so on and so forth. Seldom if ever formulaic (random building tables are a stinker). Admirably distinct. Dripping with strange atmosphere.
It ends on a gimmicky note, where one may generate various things or results by casting dice onto the physical pages of the book (or in my case, at my laptop screen I suppose) but fuck that noise.

5-6 Vollrath Von Klaw Creates wax sculptures of dead loved ones and dresses them like servants

It is hard to judge Vornheim since it almost feels like 2 different books. As a book on running and describing Vornheim Vornheim succeeds amazingly well with admirable brevity. As a generic sandbox citybook supplement there is much to love but I suspect the bulk of the content is a bit too fine-tuned to suit the author’s very distinct and specific taste for easy transplanation and overall use. The procedurally generated random cityplan rules that take up a considerable part of the book simpy do not do it for me, and surely it is much easier to simply mine them for ideas.

I would almost have preferred a more focused, less generic Vornheim the Grey Maze supplement, as a generic fanasy city supplement it is too specific and entwined with the setting of Vornheim to make much sense. And more short adventures plz.

Recommended for:
> Fans of China Mevielle, Gothic crap, New Weird gobbledygook, OSR, Dnd With Pornstars
> Inexperienced city sandbox afficianado’s
> Random table spammers or those with a deep-seated psychological addiction to the perusal of random tables without their actual use.
> Anyone wanting to run a fantasy campaign in Vornheim. This should allow you to do so.

Pros: Unique setting, great atmosphere, excellent adventures, random tables are nice.
Cons: Gimmicky mechanics, overly specific for use as a generic city supplement, schizophrenic design philosophy. Where the fuck are my monster stats.

Final Verdict: Great parts with occasional chunks of baffling nonsense, goofy houserules, irrelevant houserules and an endless tide of fucking tables. 6.5 out of 10. Make a dedicated campaign setting next time. Write adventures (added Maze of the Blue Medusa to the fucking list).

Consult Zak’s blog for the stats of various interesting monsters. Can someone call James and ask him to rip out the various goofy dice throwing rules and useless player commentary and plug in some write ups for monsters instead? I mean why the fuck would you invent such an elegant, terse, descriptive format for monster stats and then not put the monster stats in your book. How does that make sense?

7 thoughts on “[Review] Vornheim (Loftp); Lesser then the sum of its parts

  1. “If one needs to know where a certain building is, why is this choice left to random chance when the GM, who has more information on the place then any of the players, can quickly make an informed decision?”

    One knows where the major features and thoroughfares are, in relation to one another, because one has pre-generated these things with one’s own lily-white hand. When one’s players decide that they will not follow the main Street of Ten Thousand Shameful Desires because they wish to avoid harlots, patrolling guards, and the gaze of the wizard’s necrotic vulture familiar which speaks only in echoes of their own misdeeds, THEN you reach for procedural generation to fill in the rambling thoroughfares along which they bestealth themselves.

    It is possible that my high esteem for Vornheim comes from my tendency to run everything in Gothic Pratchett mode and my distaste for pre-planned minutiae. In short it is a work which happens to address my own needs almost exactly, thus predisposition occurs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like maybe half the procedural generation guidelines, the major buildings thing is tossfiddle. The rambling thoroughfares is actually kind of neat. So too the random streetplanning. There is no shame in liking Vornheim.


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