Zak S. (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
There once was a boy named Timmy. For his 13th birthday Little Timmy could pick one gift from the hobby store. His family was poor but because he had been a good boy his father gave him their one cow to trade in the city and buy whatever game he wanted. Not knowing what to buy, he asked the local parish for guidance and prayed to Jesus Christ. “Jesus,” little Timmy asked. “I don’t ask for much, and the glowing electronic toys of my friends make them slothful and sap their spirits and turn them into drooling bugmen, and there is also some sort of creepy ideological push going on there that, frankly, I don’t much care for. Won’t you please show me the light and recommend a game to me that isn’t a soul-destroying poisonous nightmare swamp?” And that day a gigantic glowing Dodecahedron fell from the sky and obliterated his squalid hovel and the surrounding 20 miles in a fifty megaton thermonuclear explosion, sparing only himself and the cow, which for convenience and narrative flow’s sake, was instantly converted into gold pieces.
After careful consideration of this momentous omen, Little Timmy decided that most of all, he wanted to buy a roleplaying game called Dungeons & Dragons, for he had always enjoyed fantastical adventures when he was but a boy, and only this way could he relive those fantasies while keeping his mind sharp and his spirit up.
But on his way to the gaming store, there it was! Gleaming 20-sided in the distance! he had to walk through the artisans quarter, which was very dangerous and dirty. A fetid reek of vanilla-scented vape, unwashed flesh and stale bongwater assaulted his senses, and blaring punk rock assailed his ears. “Hey kid, where ya off too.” He stopped, turned around to behold, in some midnight-shrouded alley, an unmarked van with its portals just peeking over.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
“Come closer boy,” a grating, inebriated voice croaked from behind the unmarked van.
And little Timmy stepped forward, into the dark alley, for Jesus had always told him to be brave, and to have pity on strangers and to be polite.
From behind the van emerged three figures. One was hulking and unshaven, dressed only in a sodden trenchcoat, a beret and Trotsky glasses, his beardless face disfigured with piercings and tattoos and his chin soft and amorphous. One was a woman, well-proportioned but greasy, whatever natural endowments she possessed drowned out beneath a torrent of indiscriminate make-up and a general air of slovenly neglect. She was garbed in a Che Guevara T-shirt with a ketchup stain on it and smelled overpoweringly of Marlboros. They were dwarfed by their leader, a skinny, rat-faced man with a purple Mohawk, soft lips and eyeliner wearing a mesh tank-top.
The Mohawk lit up and blew cigarette smoke in Timmy’s face.
“Where ya off too kid?”
“Well jeez Mr.,” said Timmy unabashed through a coughing fit. “I was just heading out to use the proceeds from selling Bessy to buy myself a Dungeons & Dragons.”
“Dungeons & Dragons?” the trenchcoat snarled, immediately on edge and reaching for a bicycle lock. “Don’t you know that Dungeons & Dragons is responsible for killing millions of underpriveliged minorities trough structural violence and contributes directly to the rise of white supremacy in our postwestern civilization?”
The Mohawk rolled his eyes and silenced him with a gesture. “That’s pretty cool kid,” he said. “I liked that game a lot when I was very young. That’s an okay game if you are a child.”
Timmy’s eyes grew. He wasn’t a child anymore, according to the ultra-biblical creed his prepper parents had homeschooled him with, he was a full-grown man and ready to do his duty and die for Jesus in glorious combat. “Well gosh sir,” he said, disappointed. “I always thought D&D was a game for all ages.”
The Mohawk gave him a knowing smirk and offered him a cigarette. “Listen kid, you wanna get ahead in life, you gotta be cool, and in order to be cool, you can’t be seen playing those lame children’s games anymore. RPGs are hip now. You gotta get with the program. You gotta play the Artpunk. Dragons? Dragons are 2019. It’s the current year. Why don’t you step into my van and I will show you something really cool.”
“Well gee Mr.,” little Timmy said. “That’s, that’s mighty kind of you. Artpunk you said? Boy those are some colourful covers. They sure look like kind of weird but also very creative. What will they cost me?”
The Mohawk closed the door of the Van behind him. His gaze fixed on infinity and was endowed with the hardness of cut glass. His voice became flat, crisp and cold like the vacuum of intergalactic space.
The Artpunk is rising. After Lotfp was dealt a grievous hit under the water-line and took on water, the adherents of this terrible creed emerged filth-spattered from all of its nooks and crannies and leapt into the ocean, to search for greener pastures to infest. In its wake follow Troika, and now Mörk Börg, and with each iteration we see an inexorable decline in gameability, depth, substance and thematic fealty in favor of gorgeous presentation, posturing and off-the-wall hair-brained ideas. They will not rest until every coffee table has a copy of Mörk Börg and you can’t walk into a Starbucks without a heated discussions on the postcolonial constructivism in Fronds of Benevolence. Indeed, something must simply be done. And who but to do it but Prince?
If we want to examine Artpunk in order to illustrate its strengths and weaknesses and the historical inevitability of its defeat we need look no farther then Vornheim as it effectively encapsulates all of them and the entire catalog of Artpunk that came afterward is basically a derivative of it. Yes I mean that more or less sincerely.
Vornheim is a 75 page toolkit, that most quixotic of supplements, not-quite-city crawl, not quite campaign setting but a curiosity, forged in the dawn of the dreaded Zak’s career and infused with all of the nervous, starry eyed energy of his early years. It is, to put it in his own words: “… less about floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth and more about ways to quickly and easily generate floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth in the middle of a session while the players are breathing down your neck waiting for you to tell them what’s going on.”
First off; Good topic. City-crawling is a regular feature in D&D campaigns but unlike Hex or Dungeon Crawling it doesn’t really have an established format or procedures, so everything from linear railroads to City of the Invincible Overlord Style settings where every street and NPC is detailed flies.
Before we continue, we must consider that Vornheim enjoyed considerable success, and indeed continues to do so to this day (just check out the Lotfp top sellers!), and it is not hard to see why. In an age of shitty cobbled together word docs that were still in the midst of re-discovering and reaffirming the wonder of the olden days, offset against glossy corporate tomes filled with sterile dungeonpunk art here comes Vornheim, garbed in fearsome Black Sabbath album covers, with cannibal elves and corroding towers protruding from an endless icy waste like the rotting fingers of some great hideous god and unique monsters on every page, to sweep away all that has come before in a torrent of pose and panache. Nowhere do we see the criminally large margins of the bloated latter day Lotfp, instead every square inch is dotted with highly readable font, indexed, paragraphed and it all looks like something you could put on a coffee table or show to your fellows. This isn’t your grandfather’s D&D. It has, undeniably, style.
On a plain near the town of Olgrave 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
Vornheim’s central problem is that once the initial Störm und Dräng has worn off and the band gets halfway through their repertoire there seems little to fall back on. Each individual component does not contribute harmoniously to the stated goal but instead gets mired in quirky one-off systems, fluff, rules to speed up trivial obstacles and a curious reluctance to commit.
Vornheim can be divided into three parts. The first one concerns itself with communicating the general nature of Vornheim to you, the unwashed reader, so that he may create his own Vornheim with Blackjack and Hookers . The reasoning is based on an extrapolation of common OSR wisdom, that a plethora of setting detail serves more to ultimately hinder then to aid the suffering GM, but the resulting approach goes beyond into dirty postmodernist territory.
The surrounding area is described in mere paragraphs, each containing a fine atmospheric kernel to spark the imagination. The style is uncharacteristically difficult to parse , but appears to be a mutant crossbreed of Harrison’s Viriconium and Peake’s Ghormenghast  as applied to D&D and jolly good for you. The entire Gazzeteer is very much soft, you will not find definitive neighbourhoods, population figures, factions and even major landmarks are buried in a mesh of Heisenbergian Uncertainty, the more defined a feature, the less defined its location, so as to facilitate its placement during play.
The end result is that you come away from Vornheim knowing a few crucial details that help you set the tone of the place, as well as a few hooks that contribute positively to making it feel distinct but most of it is inert blank space, to be filled up with the random tables in the back of the book. A god of rust (Vorn) and a god of all flesh with fine evocative names take up less space then this paragraph so you come away with it thinking ah, clerics of Vorn may only use edged weapons, how rebellious and then tittering to yourself but no firm Foundation underlying the damn thing.
Well and good, say I, but if there are no major factions, NPCs, fleshed out dungeons, equipment lists or City of the Overlord levels of detail with every street mapped out, what then is there?
There are several good elements that are memorable and a mountain of details that drive home the atmosphere but little else. The existence of a Wyvern in a Well that answers any single question for each person for example is directly gameable and interesting. There’s two festivals that can serve as springboards for adventure creation, snakes are books (the various implementations of this fact are discussed and credit where it is due, actual rules for books are introduced later). I could probably bury you with at least fifteen different ideas that are quirky, baroque and atmospheric but that don’t really transform into something gameable.
Almost with reluctance, Vornheim goes into a few unique, almost Melviellian monsters like the Hollow Brides or the assassin-homonculi of the Chain, or the demonic Ring Wolf, but these are not provided with statts, despite the fact that Vornheim’s ultra-shorthand statt blocks are actually very readable. It is a bestiary, above many other things, that establishes the nature of a setting. It helps that later on Vornheim does provide a list of hooks/encounters to help you transform all this fluff into something resembling crunch.
A messenger in livery staggers out of an alley bleeding and drops dead at the PC’s feet holding a message for powerful alewife Dolphia Sternborg concerning a caravan containing a massive shipment of hops (held up during a detour through the Spine mountains). If the PCs do nothing, the price of beer and ale quickly spikes to 50 gp and panic spreads
Merchant recognizes martial and battle-scarred bearing of PCs and quietly offers them battered but functional siege tower in working condition concealed in warehouse a few blocks away for only 300 gp.
A PC begins to hear whispers whenever s/he is outside. These whispers are from one of the 10,000 wind gods. He is trapped in the Library, Zoo, Eshrigel’s House, or somewhere else in the city by a powerful NPC. The god wants to be freed and, to this end, will give the PC advice or directions necessary to free him. He may only whisper one word every 10 minutes though.
Adventures begin in the middle and are curious. In a mixed supplement you expect sample adventures to sort of illustrate the way certain sub-systems are used or how it comes together but instead each is centred around a single idea, and filled to the brim with unique weirdness, but several principles of sound dungeon design are left on the cutting room floor. The problem is that much of the creativity is buried in superficial elements. The reason most dungeons incorporate such elements as traps, random encounters, concealed treasure, factions, difficult terrain etc. etc. is that these elements in general will produce decent dungeons and provide myriad challenges for the players to balance. Reducing this to a few core elements can emphasize artistic vision but render the whole too simple or limited and is an error that you see among beginners.
The second recurring feature is the illegible maps. Even the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, which uses a mercifully conventional (for Vornheim) isometric view, the lack of a grid makes it hard to do proper time-keeping etc. etc. The rest is some freakish hybrid of horizontal and vertical view, which can be tortuously puzzled out. It’s something that looks cool but is to the detriment of useability.
There is an odd sense of the weird and the disconnect to each adventure. Rather then function as expressions of what has been outlined before, each operates as its own, unique, confounding puzzle peace. Perhaps that appeals to you.
House of the Medusa (1 – 4)
The house of one of the legendary 12 medusa’s and more of an adventure location, this one is 4 pages. It is not clearly stated what the use is for but the most straightforward approach appears to be some sort of burglarly or search for petrified, albeit nonspecified prisoners. There’s a decent mixture of magical countermeasures, a unique guardian (the plasmic ghoul), the medusa herself, a cursed dictionary and that’s about all she wrote. Treasure is manor furnishings, not bad but unremarkable, although this one does add the odd concealment and complication (the piano is too heavy, dealers will know where Eshregel’s paintings come from etc. etc.) and the secret door is well placed. I am missing a sort of oomph factor, a stellar encounter or distinct feature that merits it being one of three adventures. ** for being about average, hard to judge, the atmosphere is odd.
The Immortal Zoo of Ping-Feng.
Lvl 4 – 7
The best of the bunch, and it showcases the strange style of the whole supplement better than anything in the supplement. A subterranean zoo, long-forgotten, settled by the Astrologer Ping Feng and lost for centuries. The damn thing has been going for centuries with its caretaker apparently procuring food somewhere but fuck it, people search it out because it might still hold the secret of immortality.
The central conceit is that as you enter the Zoo you are trapped and a concealed opponent, the Nightingale, unlocks the cages at opportune times so a deadly game of Cats and Mice may occur. The map is complex enough to allow multiple means of exploring the labyrinth while being chased by increasingly belligerent monstrosities. The longer you take to figure out it’s the damn Nightingale, the more monsters are released (and to its credit, there’s a short sidebar with nightingale tactics so you understand when to release a monster) until you become cornered and, given the strength of some of them, probably overwhelmed?
Pretty good job on the monsters, very creative. A four-headed tortoise with a jeweled shell, a schorpion goat demon, a frog with the voice of a young girl, the sensual nephidean vampire, a hypnotic blood-drinking peacock, a flail-headed triceratops and a shit-faced alcoholic Griffon. There’s two visiting lunatics but not really any way to perhaps use the monsters against eachother indulge in faction play beyond figuring out the secret to escape. There’s an element that is interesting in that the creatures themselves are worth money if left alive but most of them are going to be chopped down and killed if I know PCs. The whole thing is very single session, no R&R, resource management, exploration, factions, and secret door placement is fairly arbitrary but this should be short, punchy, playable and fun. ***
The Library of Zorlacc
The library of a compulsive bibliophile and alchemist. Each librarian thief is bound by magical oath to not notice or interact with one another unless the library is breached. There is no one use for this location but several are suggested, among them burglary, a common theme of city adventures. The conceit is that each library room can only be accessed via a carefully concealed secret door that will only open if you solve a puzzle (usually in the form of noticing something off, and then interacting with it). The whole set up is sort of puzzling since most secret areas can either be accessed by standard secret doors from building areas or secret doors on the outside and the map is confusing to the point of illegibility. Though it is noted that the lethality of the adventure relies on how well the various librarians coordinate their efforts in stopping intrusion, they merely use (whatever the most sophisticated tactics are the GM can devise). Librarians have a random chance of being in or arriving later, and each is an NPC of unique ability, from extensive knowledge of the city of Vornheim to throwing Vials of Acid at the PCs or being possessed by the Bone-sucking Demon Vorthulax! Maybe a little stronger then House of the Medusa, the NPCs are all colorful and the existence of a demon summoning rug that will only be used by Zorlacc in times of great crises is an interesting addition. An honorable mention for the Hydra-pruner in the basement (remember that snakes are books). **
The third part of Vornheim concerns the various rules and tables and forms the backbone of the city kit. This is where Vornheim is at its most ambitious but also where its omissions are most telling. The emphasis on emergent world-building is interesting because it saves time. Rather then map out, beforehand, all major landmarks and wealth levels, Vornheim recommends you generate them when they become important to the game. This approach harkens back all the way to the S&S short stories; Leiber didn’t immediately describe the difference between the Gods of and the Gods In Lahkmar, or explain where every single building stood, or who each specific god was etc but revealed them peacemail, as needed, while dropping the odd foreshadowing hint to tantalize the reader.
You get quick but therefore also very barebones rules for placing these neighbourhoods and generating their wealth level and I think that also misses an opportunity to give flavor and color to the rather amorphous and general nature of Vornheim as described. There’s no way to differentiate, beyond that single dice roll, what each neighbourhood is like, which represents a missed opportunity. If you take the trouble of differentiating different neighbourhoods then that difference should mean something, otherwise one can simply fast travel.
The most ambitious are the City-crawl rules provided within. These are for occasions when free movement in the city becomes dangerous, such as during the Festival of Masks,
The goofy dice-rules, tucked away in the pages of Veins of the Earth like a dead rat, have in this supplement their primordial antecedent. It goes without saying that resolution should just be a combination of dice rolls as these allow you to create a truly astonishing set of distribution curves, of which the humble 3d6 is but the first and most rudimentary. Tools are given to create random floorplans or create random neighbourhoods to crawl through which serves as a stopgap measure in case PCs go off the grid but stops there and no further. Generate plan, roll random encounters (which often double as hooks) provided in back of book seems to be the gist of it.
As a stopgap measure its nice to have, but it falls into the category of a random dungeon generator. It can work, but it needs to generate enough variety to carry multiple sessions of play if it is to hold up under repeated play. I imagine a list of environmental hazards, local conditions, barricades, some unique features on the street to discover while crawling (rare shopkeeper, obscure inn, prominent artist, abandoned serpent garden etc.). That being said, the random encounters as written are manifold and fairly good, functioning disjointedly as environmental factors, hooks or straight up encounters.
Lunar eclipse. Citizens become nervous, superstitious, and paranoid until next morning
Street/floor collapses, d6 PCs tumble 50 feet into black water and stone tunnels. Strange toads (or albino crocodiles encrusted with jewels) stir in the murk.
Party passes members of Princeling Gang buying white moth opium off gang of smugglers. Both sides are inclined to kill PCs to avoid being exposed
There is an off-beat method of resolving disputes with the legal authorities that makes each altercation function as a type of special hook and is arguably another strong part of the book. Vornheim’s baroque tapestry of age-old law results in a veritable cornucopia of bizarre forms of procedure, from the relatively straightforward Trial by Assassin, where the PCs must elude for a period of time 20 concerned citizens tasked with assassinating them, to the byzantine Trial by Animal, where each party attempts to convince the jury that either a toad or a goat commited the injustice, to the downright farcical Anti-Trial, where the party that is deemed guilty goes free and vice versa.
The various tables to generate a plethora of NPCs, always with memorable or distinct details, are a bit too weird to use with any city but Vornheim but serve well. This is bolstered by random treasure, fortunes, shopkeepers etc. etc. All of this combines to communicate an atmosphere, a sense of the place.
Where Vornheim arguably fails, and where Veins did a better job, is in systems, the skeleton of a toolbox. For all its flaws, Veins, in addition to having a beautifully creative Bestiary, tackles the process of Veinscrawling head-on and gives you the full monty, from reworked encumberance, mutation, climbing, tunnel generation, cave generation, food, light etc. etc. etc. Now it doesn’t always do that consistently and sometimes it drops the ball, but it attempts to engage with the material with an ingenuity and at a level of depth that was mostly unheard of.
Vornheim has plenty of atmosphere, and has enough content to communicate that atmosphere, but the rules are stopgap or rudimentary. It is suggested a chess match is played with the surviving pieces serving as assets resulting from a faction war between two parties, for example. There’s rules that allow you to resolve trivial things, like a rule of thumb for figuring out item prices on the fly. This was not what it needed.
Whenever I try to figure out if something meant for sandbox play is any good, I try to ask myself, what would Kevin Crawford do? And the answer is always the same, because it is the correct answer. You take the planet generation system from SWN and you apply it to neighbourhoods, and you use the faction system so varied and complex organizations, in the form of gangs, cults, priesthoods, guilds, berserker lodges and covens can be generated quickly, yet with sufficient variety so as to inspire the GM and you provide a robust yet manageable system to resolve faction conflicts so the whole can be played as a living, breathing sandbox. Vornheim states that pissing off people or factions during your adventures is one of the DISTINCTIVE differences between city campaigns and dungeons and proceeds to give you, well, arbitrary chess based resolution. Do I need a recommended Elo before I attempt this, and what is Vornheim’s position on Backgammon based resolution systems?
Consigning trivial detail to the quantum foam to be collapsed when needed is a fine approach but in its approach Vornheim has proceeded too far. For all its colorful menagerie of Ghormenghastian aristocrats and shopkeepers with bizarre quirks, there is barely any room for the big guys, the major players, the big hombres, what should be the truly memorable parts of the damn setting and for all its boasts of giving us the tools to generate such and such it gives us the surface details only.
The Karameikos gazzeteer has, all things told, maybe a handful of factions? But each is impactful on the setting as a whole, and provides a springboard to create adventure from. Vornheim, in seeking to remain aloof and mysterious, denies itself a potent advantage in favor of a cavalcade of colorful, yet ultimately interchangeable npc templates, and that is ultimately to its detriment. I forgot most of the entries on the table, but I remembered the Chain, or the Three Witches at the beginning of the book. My opinion is entirely supported in Veins, which most certainly deigns to tackle the inhabitants that compose its alien milieu, from the nuisance vermin lantern dogs to the civilization devouring Civilopede. Also when I swam across the ocean to steal British Covid vaccines out of patriotic duty since the Dutch government is late in procuring them , I told Patrick Stuart about this idea I had and he 100% agreed with me. ‘Bloimy, You are right as the Chimes of Great Big Ben Prince,’ he said. ‘Now let me buy you a Crispet with Cricket-sauce.’
As a collection of hooks or as a mood peace this stuff is certainly not bad. It manages to convey its themes of alienation, ennui, baroque strangeness and madness quite well. But that’s ultimately all it does. It lacks the weight of something like Carcosa, which boldly re-envisions DnD while miraculously leaving its core components untouched, or the fecund creativity of Veins, or the depth of something as serviceable and homely as GAZ 1. A vital spirit, with NPCs, Monsters, Items and magical shit, was needed for its setting, and big beautiful complex mechanics, were needed to make it work as a toolkit. Unless you really dig the style and are looking for something cool to show to your stoner friends or showcase on your coffee table, I think give it a pass.
Let the Great Artpunk Crusade Begin.
 Though one would infer that given its author the original campaign does not suffer from any dearth in that dimension!
 In general, one can tell the digestible artpunk from the fact that it still has some sort of intelligable style, albeit an obscure one and the inferior variant from the fact that it is essentially dissonant noise, the creative equivalent of a seizure.
 Ghormenghast is not cited in the Appendix Z but I took it as point that lies equidistant on the line that separates Alice in Wonderland from Viriconium so there you go.
 And also to avenge the humiliating defeat we eventually suffered at the hands of the English during the trade wars of the Golden Age.