Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Part 2)

Last weekend I played a session of Vornheim, using a PDF on a netbook as the physical copies were still at the printer’s. The preparation and first impact with the game has been discussed already here, what’s missing is some kind of play report and conclusions.

Except the conclusions are right here, and the report follows: if you like any of urban adventuring, random tables, sandboxes, the OSR, improvisation or preparation as opposed to using a premade heavily described setting, get Vornheim now; it’s probably the most-bang-for-the-buck RPG product I’ve ever bought in my life. If you ever plan to run some kind of city adventure, or you like random tables, still get it. I actually recommend it to any GM that can spare a handful of euros both to be aware of what can be done in terms of how handbooks can do to support your game and read  important bits of RPG theory that somehow till now managed not to be published. Just start a short campaign in Vornheim to acquire a taste for it, throwing stuff at your players faster than they can cope with, and see what happens. The city will cope with your initial clumsiness. 😉

V:tCCK is also a stunning example of how to write a setting describing what the characters and players interact with, instead of describing the whole of it. While this might be initially seen as shallowness by a non-OSR perspective, it turns out to be its greater strength. What stuck me, and that contributes to making V:tCCK so awesome, is that it doesn’t describe Vornheim. It gives you a method to create one, two, infinite Vorhneims. They are never going to be the same, but they’ll never be different.

And now, some short commentary on the game. Andrea, if you’re reading, stop now. 😛

My players rolled two new pcs, and with some kind of NPC-ex-machina the session started with an airship mooring on a mast on a Vornheim tower. Their weapons have been immediately taken care of by the police and, thanks to a rat-trap seller they managed to get directions to Zord tower.

Actually the bad reaction roll got them bad directions and kinda got them lost in the tower,(roll) ending up being assaulted by a damsel feigning distress and her accomplices. After the damsel (hf t3), fighting with a sword previously camouflaged as a shirt whalebone, fell under dagger blows and her goons ran away, the party managed to befriend a nearby (roll) glassblower, that allows them to hang out in one of his empty storerooms in exchange for some help in the shop due to a really teary story narrated by Pyeerroo. The “damsel” is searched and, together with money, a (roll) golden statuette of a bicephalous pig is found in her moneybag. The statue is so going to be a recurrent McGuffin, leaving behind a trail of corpses.

Pyeerroo is Andrea’s halfling thief, strangely resembling Hannibal Smith as they both love when plans come together and smoke cigars. Except Pyeerroo’s cigar is never lighted as he’s poor and can afford just to chew it a little bit.

In the room they manage to stabilize their “wounded comrade” and to interrogate her. Tuns out she’s a member of (roll, roll, see below) the Mob, the biggest thief guild in town, with hands in many other businesses as well. Tara (that’s her name, I watched some Buffy recently) barters some information and promises of collaboration for her freedom. The party manages to win her trust and admiration by giving her stuff back. Except the sword, so now PCs have illegal weapons again 🙂

On the way to the tower they met (roll, roll, roll) Gruk, a half orc physician and surgeon that uses modern techniques. Modern as in “they work and kill less patients”. After a short discussion about them being dark skinned southerners and what that means for Vornheimans, they befriend him and tell him that they’ll visit him soon. Then they start to climb up the tower, looking at the various establishments inside, with Pyeerroo ending up in the unlicensed brother at the end of the session.

They’ve been exposed to a number of things unmentioned: slow pets puzzled them but then somehow realized that it’s just a way to show social status by wasting time, architectural elements like towers and bridges, megastructures, gardens, and the Wyvern well.

Anyway, they never mentioned the serpent reader to anyone. Yay paranoia. 🙂

A player asked for feedback quipped:”it seems like Eberron”. Actually they meant Sharn. The fact that they couldn’t remember Sharn’s name says a lot.

Anyway, here are the guilds for thieves and physicians I came up with, from small to big, following the method described here.

Thieves:

  1. Black Fist
  2. Comrades of Empty Pockets
  3. United Bakeries (the baker’s union is just a cover, but they still make good bread. Don’t go for their meat pies unless you like human flesh tho)
  4. Blind Eye
  5. The Ring
  6. Dagger & Thaler
  7. Magnificent Beggars’ Kingdom
  8. The Mob

Physicians:

  1. Vorn Devote Healers
  2. United Unions of Physicians & Musicians (due to restructuring of the building they shared they ended up joining forces)
  3. League of Amputators, Leeches and Cuppers
  4. Surgeons and Physicians Convivium
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Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit

I really wanted to write a recension of Zak’s Vornmeim from LOTFP, but I decided against.

Instead, keeping with the spirit of the manual, I’ll just use it and see how it rolls. Later on today I’ll play a game and I want to do a fat hour of prep. While listening to Therion’s Vovin. The followup and final opinion on Vornheim is here.

Anyway, PCs travel freely between Capolago (home base in my campaign) and the Dungeon of the Mad Archmage (run by Bowser’s player, my cousin Andrea). How to get them to Vornheim? Actually, not how (that’s easy, airship or sea ship laden with rare woods and food), but WHY?

I need a local hook that can kinda push them there in a nice way. Rolling a random page lands me on the Library of Zorlac: Archmage Darkcloak will demand the PCs, since they caused the death of his apprentice Roderick and since Bowser owes him a favour, to recover a serpent reader. Noone heard of such things in my campaign world, but DarkCloak knows that “such unique and misterious artefact from another world” is owned by a private book collector in Vornheim. Recover it, or else: they’ll have a contact in Vornheim, i’ll come up with that later.

So far, easy: snake readers can be quite expensive but are not unfindable in Vornheim. But I need some intrigue. Comes out the connection table on page 53. Darkcloak is connected by NPC1, a native Vornheimer called Dick the Wit, which is (roll, 5) secretly (as in “one of many Dick’s personas”, roll roll roll) Okto of Skarr, a lotus addict aristocrat owning lots of really good farmland close to Skarr, a city far away (actually, he doesn’t). Okto entered Vornheim’s who’s who by feigning to be (roll roll roll) cousin of Kyle of Zord (yes, the family name is different, marriage between families happens, and he knew that Kyle doens’t know about his family branches and that one of his half-cousins’s wives is from Skarr), a sweaty and insecure epicurean employing the best chefs in the city, unwittingly sharing power with his sister, Tittlieb of Zord (yep, it’s the Vornheiman female version of Gottlieb, or Amadeus, but in this case she loves Tittivilla), a grubfight champion. Tittlieb (roll, roll) hates the f*ck out of Dick but respects Okto.

Ugh. Conflicting constraints. I love conflicting constraints 🙂 Constraints are directions allowing design to flow.

Tittlieb hates Dick as they used to be lovers in their youth (15 years ago), but ran away with all of her jewelry. She’s still mildly upset about it. At the same time she respects Okto as he’s rich, interesting, great at entertaining guests, and a relative. She doesn’t know about Okto being Dick, as he’s a damn good actor and conman. Conflicting requirements fixed.

Anyway, Dick and Kyle want to get rid of Tittlieb, and promise the PC that they’ll tell them who the book collector is if they manage to find a way to make Tittlieb GTFO of Vornheim. What not many people know is that… I need more stuff. What? Location, location, location. I need to populate the tower housing the Zords, called Zord Tower.

From the building table, a brothel ( “The Soft Damsel”), a food market hall full of pickpockets, a lawyer studio (“Pugnale, Portafoglio & Pantalone” [knife, wallet and trouser]  are the three lawyers), the mason shop that built and maintains the tower, a tavern (where Tittlieb plays grubfight), another lawyer studio (“Ingannamorte” [deathtricker]), a curio shop (“Magic Box”, sells magic boxes), a nameless winery, another lawyer (“Gragnuoli Brothers”), and another brothel (not belonging to any corporation, therefore illegal, seeming a normal apartment shared by a number of ladies). And two airship mooring masts (one in the market, one in Zord’s villa on top), 4 air bridges connecting the tower to other neighbouring tower clusters, 50% chance that a secret passage links any two given buildings in the tower (known to the old masons obviously, 1% that an inhabitant knows of about passages).

Many lawyers studios… I need guilds!

There are (roll 2d6) 4 lawyers guilds in town: the Most Estimated Union of Barristers, United Piemakers and Lawyers, Vornheim Black Advocates and Grand Advocates Guild. I pick Italian surnames for lawyers, insurers, bankers and moneylenders, just because of my genuine hatred for what they are doing to the place where I was born and raised; as a result NPCs from the above categories are usually evil and rich sociopaths that entertain good relationships with the mob. Ah, don’t get me started on the Vornheiman mob.

To simulate the spread of big and small guilds I came up with a neat rule: associate the guilds to a non uniform dice distribution (for example, 4 guilds -> spread with 4 possible results -> either 1d2+1d3 or 1d4 twice then pick highest), then roll for each.

  • PP&P -> 1,1 -> 1 -> MEUP
  • Ingannamorte -> 4,1 -> 4 -> GAG
  • GB -> 3,2 -> 3 -> VBA

The lawyers are always scheming. I dunno how or what. But hey are. They always do. They’ll hire the PCs to do odd, almost perfectly legal stuff.

Now, I imagine I don’t really need a plot or situation as I have a number of locales and odd NPCs and that will fuel the next sessions. I’ll just put the players in Vornheim and let them cause the usual trainwreck. Because they always manage to.

First, pre-game judgment: the book rocks. It threads a path rarely taken: describing a campaign setting encoding its behaviour. I can see a lot of material in the same style supporting it coming out of the OSR. I hope this will happen.

Tip:Generating Campaign Specific Rumours

Campaigns, sandboxed or not, might use some rumours to better motivate lazy players.

An approach is to have a neat campaign specific table compiled. Very neat and integrated, but it takes preparation, and it’s just limited to the table entries.

Another approach is to have a neat generic table compiled, and weave the result from the table in your campaign. Somewhat dirty and random, but good for improv and sandboxes. Some players might feel tricked as this approach might appear not honest to them (“maaan you and your stupid old school tables just f**ked me for no reason whatsoever”). You know what? Tell them to GTFO. 🙂

After reading Vornheim (a mighty fine product, let me tell you, as it defines a campaign through its behaviour and not through mere prose, which deeply satisfies my software engineer aesthetics I keep well hidden under my black beard, soul and clothes) I decided to use Zak’s “roll dice on page” to achieve a more direct solution to the problem. Pick a random page of the campaign setting, roll a d4 on it and, tah dah, what’s under the d4 is the rumour/secret.

Rumour Generation System

A: Pick a page at random from your campaign setting or notes.

B: Roll a d4, make it land on the page, read the sentence under the d4, refer to the following table:

  1. spill the beans and create a true rumour based on the sentence.
  2. refer the opposite of the sentence. It might not be a lie di per se but simply something erroneous or misreported.
  3. take the sentence and spin it so far and fast and hard that it might seem a false rumour but there is some underlying truth behind it. Think chinese whispers.
  4. create a rumour (30% true, 30% false, 40% mixed) based on the sentence, then pick another random page in the book (or some other book) and repeat the whole procedure, mixing the results.
C: try to weave some kind of reasonable tale around the topic, in case it feels artificial.