Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Your Zobeck Handbook

If you follow the gaming hobby – and to be fair, that is not necessarily an easy prospect with the dearth of good news sites – you will have scarcely failed to notice that one of the projects currently under way at Open Design is the development of Wolfgang Baur’s own campaign of Midgard into a full blown campaign setting. Since the launch of Kobold Quarterly in 2007, Baur has been drip feeding us small details about the world, or more specifically, about its signature setting, the Free City of Zobeck. From these we have learnt that Zobeck is a mercantile city ruled by a council rather than the nobility, that it is famed for its manufacture of clockwork and steam driven mechanisms, that it is known for the high number of Kobolds who number amongst its population, and other interesting facts. Unfortunately, beyond that, finding out more about Zobeck takes a little effort, as the only book available is the Zobeck Gazetteer and that like many of Open Design books being only being available from the publisher’s website.

Published in 2008, the Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City is a slim volume that provides just about information to get you started, but still leaves you both wanting more and with questions unanswered. It is written for use with the d20 System, so is compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and to some extent, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but apart from details on the Gearforged, clockwork devices, and clockwork magic for both arcane and divine spellcasters, the book is low on technical details. For example, not one of the single NPCs mentioned is given a full write up with attributes and statistics. Rather they are given simple thumbnail descriptions along with an indication of their class and level.

The Zobeck Gazetteer confirms much of what has been hinted at in issues of Kobold Quarterly – and indeed, actually references issues of the magazine for more information – that the city was ruled by House Stross until eighty years ago when the populace rose up against its harsh rule and demonic practices. Since then, under the patronage of Rava the Gear Goddess, the city has grown and prospered, establishing itself as a Free City and a trade nexus founded on its skill with cogs and gears, the silver from the mines worked by the Kobolds below the city, and the smuggling that passes under the city via the Cartways. The book also suggests that some of those infernal practices goes on still in the city, but obviously in secret. It does not elaborate on this though.

What the book describes the Free City’s rulers and most notable figures, its most notable inns and taverns, the presence of the Kobolds and their Ghetto – with a focus on the traps they lay for the unwary, its main districts, guilds, and gods, the latter known for penchant for dabbling in Zobeck’s affairs. Every section is accompanied by two or three adventure hooks for the GM to develop. A little information is given about the locations that lie outside of the city, but still within its borders. This limited geographical detail does mean that the city could be placed in a DM’s own campaign. A map of Zobeck is included the book, but it is in black and white – a colour version is available, and it does not show the full extent of the city’s borders beyond its walls. It is full of little details, such as how the Kobolds waylay their quarry, the Great Stross Clock which is said to hide an oracle and a temple to Rava the Gear Goddess, and how the Vigilant Brotherhood of Scribes serves the city not just as its memory and history, but also as its secret police.

Along with the description of the actual city, Baur also includes his designer notes for the setting. From these, the main thing that we learn is that his aim in creating Zobeck is to present a setting that does not draw from Western Europe for its fantasy influences. Even apart from the fact that the Zobeck Gazetteer describes a partly industrialised city rather than a rural idyll, this is not a Tolkienesque setting and its fantasy is low rather than high. Instead, he primarily draws from his own family’s origins in Eastern Europe, bringing to the fore elements already present in Dungeons & Dragons like Golems and Kobolds whilst also adding the Ghetto, mentioning the Kariv – who might be the setting’s equivalent of the Gypsies, but they are never explicitly described, and so on. The Golems show up in the presence of the Gearforged and the other mechanisms in the city, whilst the Ghetto in Zobeck is not home to a religious minority, but to the Kobolds, who have turned its tiny narrow streets into a warren of traps and tricks to foil any non-Kobold daft enough to enter the Ghetto. Even then, the Ghetto’s border guards take great delight in searching any non-Kobold going in and coming out for contraband and then taxing them.

That said, the Zobeck Gazetteer’s influences are limited, Baur never quite managing to bring in those from further afield that he clearly wants. It is true that they are hinted at, such as the dark and oppressive forests beyond the city’s borders and neighbouring nations ruled by undead masters, but the book’s influences are mostly confined to emphasising things already present in Dungeons & Dragons and thus to a limited area suggested by the presence of both Golems and Kobolds. The former suggests Prague, while the Kobold suggests Germany. So what the setting is more of a “mitteleuropan” feel, more the feel of central Europe. For anyone who has played in the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, this will certainly be familiar.

The book’s technical details include the first write up of the Gearforged, an alternate player character race to the Warforged that is now a staple of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Clockwork driven, each Gearforged possesses a soul which passed into it via a ritual from the elderly, the dying, the dedicated, and the convicted crook, which means that a player character can live on if he purchases the materials and undergoes the correct ritual to become a Gearforged. Revered in Zobeck for their aid in defending the city, but there is nothing to stop a DM adding the Gearforged to his own game. They are described in more detail in the recently published Kobold Quarterly #16. Clockwork devices are also covered along with the Clockwork school of magic as well as numerous new spells, which together would make useful additional source material to go with “The Clockwork Adept: A Prestige Class of Mechanical Precision” article in Kobold Quarterly #16.

Lastly, several clockwork creatures are described. These include the Clockwork Watchman, the Steam Golem, and the pleasing little Weaving Spider, complex devices used by the Honourable Guild of Weavers to create amazingly fine pieces of cloth and tapestries. The Weaving Spider also has other uses, but the Honourable Guild of Weavers will admit nothing about this. If the player characters have to face one of these mechanisms, then they will soon discover that the Weaving Spider can shred cloth as well as it can weave it.

While the Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City is certainly full of information, it only just about serves as an introduction to the setting. The issue is that not that it is not well written, but rather that each individual section is well written. It feels very much like a compilation of articles rather than a cohesive whole, even if they are all dedicated to the one setting. It also feels incomplete because not only does it refer to articles in Kobold Quarterly, sometimes for the smallest of details – for example, it mentions that a Kobold mining gang as being armed with kobold picks and refers to Kobold Quarterly #5 if the DM wants their statistics, it also refers to other aspects of the setting without explaining them. For example, who are the Cloven Nine?

Another issue is that of the map and the constant need to refer back to it when reading through the descriptions of the various districts. The map could have better used with relevant sections of the map being placed on the appropriate pages where the districts are described. This is a minor issue, but as a design feature it would have been useful. Similarly, it would have been nice to have had some discussion of how to apply the Dungeons & Dragons rules to the setting, for example of what character classes and races are available at the very least, if not the Domains for the various gods worshipped in Zobeck.

One of the reasons that I am looking forward to seeing the Midgard Campaign Setting is that it will address the issues that I have with the Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City. That it will be a more rounded, cohesive book with more depth than is available in this primer. This does not mean that the Zobeck Gazetteer is worth dismissing out of hand, as it provides more information than is available elsewhere. Indeed I would recommend it for that very reason and for the fact that presents an introduction to an interesting setting that feels very different to the other cities described for Dungeons & Dragons. The Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City evokes the heavy and close feel of an industrious European full of aged, but solid stone and timber buildings with secrets to hide. While still not quite perfect, The Zobeck Gazetteer: An Introduction to the Free City is the best starting pointing for anyone wanting information on the setting. Once there, you will be intrigued enough to both stay and want more information.