Thursday, March 25, 2010

Evaluating Your City

What do I want when I buy a city off somebody? I want them to do work for me. Not necessarily work I couldn't have done myself, I just want them to have put in the hours to put a little love into things I myself was too busy with other things to do.

So, scoring your city supplement:


-You get one point for each thing described. An NPC, a building, an item, a unique local custom, a bar game, a legal system, etc. For example: you can say "there's a church" and you get a point.

Clarity at High Speed

-You lose that point if you tell me anything about it that could just as well have been randomized or made up on the spot by anybody with a brain, like: "the church doors are eleven feet high and made of oak."

I can make up generic details myself, I don't need professional game designers for that. More importantly, doing that clutters up the graphic design on the page when I'm in the middle of the game trying to figure out what's going on with your church. This may seem harsh, but the whole point of using someone else's setting is that you have to do less work and if I have to prep and highlight all over the page or rewrite it then it suddenly becomes more trouble than just writing my own thing.

-You lose a point if you explain the function of a thing when I already know what it does. Like if you say "the Cathedral of Chuckles is the center of the worship of the Great God Chuckles" you're wasting your space and my time.

Notice that from these rules the effect is: if you include a church and do nothing but give me generic details about it and describe what a church is, then you've actually lost a point and so you are better off leaving the church out entirely if that's all you're going to do.


-You gain 0 points for putting the thing on a map or otherwise locating it, unless where it's located has some especially distinctive effect on the game or setting, in which case it gets you one point. Telling me the crypt is in the northeast quadrant of the city doesn't get you a point unless that means the graveyard is built on top of the all-girl juggling school. Again, if you're giving me a detail it needs to be a detail that couldn't just as well have been randomized.

-0 points if there's a map that's keyed with only numbers or letters referring to paragraphs spread out across the supplement. Five points if it's keyed with the names of places and/or some sort of distinctive shape telling you what something is just by looking at it. Twenty points if the spread with the map manages to both locate a place and encapsulate most of the important things I need to know about each location.


-You gain a point for adding a descriptive detail that affects the style of the thing. That is: creates some sort of shift in the idea of the thing by its mere presence. For example: telling me the church is shaped like perfect sphere, or an antler, or is made entirely of leather, or is a monolithic grey streaked with long dark stains from centuries of rust and rain. Ideally, You get this point even if it I don't like it--like you say the church is made of burlap and magic lutes.

Adventure Fuel And Completeness

-You gain points for adding distinctive features to things that create playable depth --information, "adventure seeds", mini-challenges--to a thing you've created, according to the following scheme:

-One point for a detail that basically says "There's an adventure you could go on outside the setting" (no matter how lame). i.e. "It is rumored that the priest has a map to the location of a sunken wreck full of treasure." (Assuming the description of the actual wreck and map are not provided in your setting.)

-One point if the adventure being pointed to isn't lame.

-Two points for a detail that points the PCs towards an adventure outside the setting and implies that some person or institution in the setting will be pleased, displeased or in some way affected by completion of the task, and if that person or institution has any identifiable and persisitent personality or role in the setting. i.e. "It is rumored that the priest carries the map because he hopes, one day, to recover the dog collar belonging to his dead puppy, Randolph, who died on that voyage."

-Three points for a detail that could send the PCs out of the setting but which will, if they succeed or fail, create a substantial change in the setting. i.e. "Legend has it that returning the collar to Charneldyne will cause all the madmen in the city to become sane."

-Four points if it sends the PCs out of the setting but also requires or implies that in order to complete the task they must do something substantive within the setting. "The ruined galleon is a mile beneath the waves. It is said there are only a handful of devices and substances that allow one to reach such depths, and a scant few in the city who know how to use them--and they all have been imprisoned by the Baron for either necromancy, lechery, or fraud."

-Five points if the task can be performed entirely within the setting. "The wreck is actually located deep beneath the surface of the Baron's moat."

(Or, to put it another way, the easier you make it for me to run the city just like a dungeon, the happier I am.)

(I'm all for "leavng space for the DM to invent things" but I don't need you to provide that--I know I can create space wherever I want. I'm subcontracting you.)

-Six points if a detail could be of general use to many, most, or all of the PCs activities within the setting. "The priest, like all the clergy in the city, is unknowingly subject to a ancient curse from the Sea Gog, Nykkto, whereby his intimates are doomed to die by drowning."


Five points for each part of the basic premise of the city that is actually interesting. i.e. "The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire" would get 0 points, whereas ""The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire and is built entirely from the bones of slain foes" will get 5 points.


Twenty points if the setting as a whole is actually interesting. Like Viriconium.

Neither gain nor lose points either way if it's just basically a medieval place.

You lose twenty points if it goes out of its way to be uninteresting, like Stamford, Connecticut.


Divide the number of points by the cost in U.S dollars of the setting.


  1. Hi Zak
    Some time ago (2003 ?) when we were playing Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (in Greyhawk), I needed a city to base the group (to buy supplies, heal, etc). In that effort, I completely detailed Verbobonc City. Here is the blurb:

    Verbobonc City detailed, at last!

    “Wayward Adventurers, come back to the city of your birth.
    Come back to where the Temple of Pholtus will light your way.
    Come back to the sights and smells of the Velverdyva River from the balconies of the Bridgewalk Tavern.
    Come back to where the thick pewter mugs clank amongst friends in the Brass Rail Tavern
    Come back to Verbobonc City.”

    - Over 6 months in the making
    - 50+ pages detailing over 100 locations
    - Entire city re-mapped in painstaking detail
    - Complete rules for buying and selling in the city’s bustling market
    - City precautions, including entry from land, river, air or spells
    - City taxes outlined
    - Much, much more!

    If you (or anyone reading this post) would like a copy, please P.M. me. It was a labour of love, so I'll accept no payment (that should boost Zak's Value score)!

  2. I like Ptolus. It meets some of your requirements, and aggressively fails at others. Where it's best is where it's some bizarre continuation of Monte Cook's ongoing game world, with Lovecraftian metaphysics and elaborate prisons and creepy backstory. Where it's weakest is where it also tries to be a generic 3rd edition setting.

    A feature that takes it from 'oh it's a city' to 'I could run a sandbox game out of this forever': it's full of adventure hooks. Almost every described location has some kind of indication of how an adventure could start there or involve the place. Usually it's just a single line, but a single line is entirely sufficient to get me improvising NPCs and events.

    But it's stupendously expensive. I got it at a fairly steep discount because the guy who ran the game store clearly regretted ordering it; it had been on his shelves forever, and he was eager to get rid of it and make room for stuff that actually sold.

    Still, I love owning it, and I've used it to run a year-long game. It would be hard for me to recommend it, though, because of the price; my girl periodically gripes that I still haven't paid it off by running enough games out of it.

  3. Hey Zak -

    I still can'thelp but think you'd like the classic Judges Guild sandbox/city VERBOSH.

  4. 'Divide the number of points by the cost in U.S dollars of the setting.'

    What happens if said setting is free? OH MY GOD - IT'S FULL OF STA-

  5. banesfinger - you had me at Greyhawk (which, I realize, you never actually said in relation to what you're offering, but, you know...)

    e-mail me at:
    yizdaku (at) yahoo dot com

  6. @ PatrickW
    Verbobonc City has been sent to your e-mail.

  7. Banesfinger--I'm curious to see what you city is like. I'm going to be running a (at least initially) city-based campaign soon, and even if I don't use it in total, I could probably steal some nifty ideas from you!

    my email is taellosse (at) gmail (dot) com.

  8. I just make my own.

    Almost no one does cities to my liking. Of course I'm biased since a large portion of my D&D adventures flip-flop between cities and a second location.

    Leave the city and explore a ruin in the jungle and than return to the city with loot, clues/information and questions for the patron. Rivals chase PCs through city to obtain something they have and they have to escape by ship. Ship arrives in very different land. Make your way across frozen tundra to reach new city and your contact, etc.

    As I tend to play more Sci-Fi and Superhero games I can easily say the best city supplement I've ever purchased was Freedom City for Mutants & Masterminds. Love that town.

  9. @ taellosse
    Verbobonc City has been sent to your e-mail. Enjoy. Feedback welcome.

  10. @ banesfinger -

    Ideas & seeds are always good. ToEE has always been near and dear to my heart, so I'd love a copy.

    dr (dot) ducker (at) gmail (dot) com

  11. Another one to Banesfinger, I'm interested as well.

    denjiro (at) hetnia (dot) com

    Thanks in advance.

  12. Ah, geez, I've played multiple rock shows in Stamford.

    Anyway, great analysis!

  13. @ DrDucker
    Verbobonc has been sent. Feel free to mine it for ideas.

  14. @ denjiro
    Sent & sent. Thanks for all the interest. Hopefully you find something you can use.

  15. Same here Banesfinger. Won't pass up free text.

    feargusu3 at g(oogle)

  16. Zak, I have the original City-State of the Invincible Overlord, and a lot of the positive stuff on your list is there.

    @ Banesfinger. Verbobonc sounds cool, especially since I hope to run TOEE someday.

    zamfir_the_great (at) yahoo

  17. Zak, that's a pretty good set of criteria for evaluating a city, but your glory in this post is a church "made of burlap and magic lutes." That one's going to puzzle and delight me for some time.

  18. Zak, have you ever read "Volo's Guide to Waterdeep"? I think it packs more useable info into a little book than any city boxed set I have ever used.

    @ Banesfinger - yes please! I would love to check out your version of Verbobonc. My email is carlgnash AT gmail DOT com


  19. I have a player who loves effing maps. I on the other hand would be perfectly happy being like-- "Yeah, the huge Cathedral Library. It has been there all the time. Yep. You just take it for granted. I mean, I just made it up but your character knows it exists. Like, how often do you think of the NYPL Research Library in your day to day? Not that often! So...I just made it up. Dammit you want a map? BUT I MAKE STUFF UP ON THE FLY, DUDE!

  20. @Banesfinger

    I would love to see your Verbobonc - thanks!

    adamjcasey [at] gmail

  21. "Twenty points if the setting as a whole is actually interesting. Like Viriconium."

    This is why I like reading your blog.

    A Viriconium game would be great. I envision a series of short campaigns. Each campaign "re-boots" the city and uses a slightly different rule-set. Maybe it starts with full on 4th ed and slowly pulls back to white box? I feel like I want the chrome and options and rule complexity to drain away even as the city slowly decays. Not that I'm making good/bad judgements on the rule systems, just that I want a sense of entropy to pervade the game as a whole.

  22. @banesfinger
    Massive kudos for developing Verbobonc, I would LOVE to see your take on it. Please mail me a copy at colin(dot)fisher1[at]gmail and you'll have my undying gratitude (like that's worth diddly).

  23. @Banesfinger

    I would love to see your work. Sounds fantastic -- oh, that's right. Given the setting it should be. AGCIAS (at) AOL (dot) com. I'm currently, in my Greyhawk compaign, working on Ft. Elderwall in the Yeomanry, then plan to go on to Monmurg and Dyvers. If anyone knows of workups of these cities, please mention it. Otherwise, when they are done I will be happy to share.

  24. @ Darok, IHaveTilFive, Carl, SirAllen, NeoFish, and AGCIAS

    The Verbobonc file has been sent. Please let me know if it doesn't get to you, as it is quite large.

  25. @banesfinger
    I'd like a copy as well
    remial (at) gmail.

    thanks in advance.

  26. Well, I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and request the Verbobonc file as well. If you could send it to hatdecoy(at)gmail, I'd be quite grateful, good sir!

  27. @ Remial and Alton

    File sent and sent.

  28. Man, those are awesome guidelines, but I'm afraid there is no setting that scores on all fields. Still, good food for thought. Very inspiring.

  29. @Banesfinger: if you could send a copy to efnord at gmail dot com I would really appreciate it- that sounds like a great source of ideas.

  30. Stamford does happen to host the underground death-match branch of the WWE.

  31. @ MetaMutant

    Because Linda McMahon is running for Senate, all WWE programming is now PG rated. ECW has been cancelled. Nothing extreme or edgy will come out of the company until it gets some competition again.

  32. @ Eric
    Sent. Hopefully you find something in there you can use.

  33. Haldane by Christian Walker of iridiaZine and Destination Unknown is a neat little city setting. Plus it's free.

  34. Banesfinger--I'd love to see (and learn from) what you've done.

    my email is winkchin (at) gmail (dot) com.

  35. Thanks for this, Zak. It's helping me think through some things about the city my home campaign is in.

  36. I only ended up here because of the Escapist contraversy. I'm pleasantly surprised to find posts, like this one, that I enjoy reading AND can see how to apply it into my own campaign. I look forward to reading more. Keep up the good work.

  37. Interestingly enough, the BBC's "In Our Time" radio program is about the emergence of the concept of a "City" (over 8000 years ago) and how it changed the shape of Human civilisation.

    Its worth poking about in the Archives, there's lots of usable stuff in there.

  38. You get 20 pts for the Viriconium reference.

    Just about my favourite city supplement is RuneQuest Cities (which I believe had other, non-RQ versions, too). It's got pretty much nothing it other than adventure seeds, all of which come up at random, based on tables.

  39. Banesfinger, I'd like to see and use if possible, your city.

    my email is txeluis (at) gmail (dot) com.


  40. Banesfinger, the problem with digital copies is you can never tell people you've run out. :)

    I'd love a copy too.

    mordionagenos (at) yahoo dot com


  41. @ Michael
    Sent. Enjoy. Feedback always welcome

  42. Marienburg for WFRP (in White Dwarf) was an amazing setting, with maps that gave just enough detail to place the interesting locations, but left enough gaps for you to add your own interesting locations. Each location then had its own map, NPC write-ups, and details of the relationships between those NPCs, their neighbours, and others in the city.

    Then Games Workshop stopped publishing WFRP, and when the expected book finally did get released, it was a more generic supplement, rather than a collection and continuation of the WD articles. A shame.

  43. @mordacai

    About your "Mapper"

    I had an imperial city that my mapper wanted to have a map to,I said fine. Copy a current Dowtown Chicago google earth map. Not print it out but copy it on to paper. Then I will provide him with a map. He delayed and then realized what I meant.

    So I gave a general idea of where something was and we developed the party's stomping grounds as they adventured, shopped, and lived in a certain area in the city with smaller maps of what they knew. It worked very well and made them feel like a piece in a big puzzle. Plus I could wing it on anything else by it not being in their section of the city.

  44. Hey Banesfinger, always interested in detailed settings. I might end up updating it for a Alt-History steampunk game I am planning.

    Email at yorkcomposer(at)yahoo(dot)com

  45. @ Kroy
    Sent. It may take some work to convert to steampunk, but I'm sure you can mine it for ideas (there are over 100 detailed locations).

  46. @Banesfinger

    I'd love to see what you've made in your Verbobonc City :)

    My email is kuza55 (at) gmail (dot) com

  47. 34th'd on wanting a copy of this verbobonc stuff. (Any of the original Fate of Istus material from Rob Kuntz make it in there?)

    2nd'd on RuneQuest Cities, which is pretty much a direct reprint of the way-fucking-awesome Midkemia Cities (and had another life as the Thieves World Guide to Sanctuary). Totally essential even if you already have a city supplement you're using.

  48. @DestroyYouAlot
    I'll need an e-mail address to send you the Verbobonc .pdf.

    The document is a combination of all the information from the relevant sources (see list below), but since most of these sources conflicted in one way or another; I had to make changes (and additions of my own) to accommodate all of the material.
    The following are the sources I used for this document:
    - The D&D Gazetteer,
    - Fate of Istus adventure & Map,
    - The Living Greyhawk Gazetteer,
    - The Codex; Verbobonc documents (Oreth Journal) & ‘3-D’ Map,
    - The RPGA: Living Greyhawk Campaign; Verbobonc & Furyond websites.

  49. Hey there, Banesfinger -- can I get a copy of Verbobonc as well?

    19charisma at gmail dot com

  50. @Banesfinger - could I get a copy as well?

    johnnfour at gmail dot com

  51. @banesfinger:
    I found your doc about verbobonc city (from 2003) at the www. REALLY great work. Thank you for that... Just the map is missing. Could you send it to me, that would be very nice.


  52. @ Banesfinger

    I'd like a copy too, if that's ok.

    graey42 (at) yahoo (dot) com

  53. @Banesfinger,

    you still have any copies of Verbobonc? :-)

    gizmomathboy at