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Sunday 19 March 2023

Monster Metropolis

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters takes you right into the home of one member of the thirteen Icons of the Dragon Empire of the 13th Age—the Blue, a Blue Dragon also known as the Blue Sorceress. Once it was the city of Highrock, which protected the Midland Sea and the empire from invasion, but four centuries ago it was invaded and reduced to ruins. So, it remained until one hundred years ago, when the Blue Dragon took the city for herself and rebuilt half it, making it a haven within the empire for all of the monsters who would not normally be allowed to reside within other cities. Even as she allows the Goblin Market—famous for its deals, steals, and buyer’s remorse—to operate within the walls of Drakkenhall, an Ogre Mage to head her secret police, and numerous cults to practice their dark faiths in their profane temples—yet denying access to the city by any Orc, the Blue Sorceress serves as the Imperial Governor of Drakkenhall under geas from the Emperor and the Archmage. The question is, has the power of the Blue been constrained within the limits of Drakkenhall by making her part of the Dragon Empire’s hierarchy, or is this part of the Blue Dragon’s plan to subvert the empire from within? Ultimately, this is not question that the supplement will answer, but like other supplements in the line, it is one that is explored and multiple answers suggested.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is a supplement for 13th Age, the roleplaying game from Pelgrane Press which combines the best elements of both Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to give high action combat, strong narrative ties, and exciting play. Designed for adventurer and champion-tier campaigns, it explores the various different aspects of a city infested by monsters, run by monsters, and constraining monsters. It is both radically law-abiding and radically criminal, fastidiously good mannered and rudely brutal, a half city built on the shattered remains of an old city, the ruins hiding dungeons and secrets which stretch from the former city walls into the depths of the city harbour waters. Alongside this, ordinary folk of the Dragon Empire get by and know how live alongside the turbulent nature of the city’s other, often unpleasant or difficult inhabitants, and in between New Rat City which provides a safe, if expensive underground route into Drakkenhall, the docks of Saltside where the lowlifes encountered are likely to be tourists as much as other visitors, and the Goblin Market, where getting fleeced is just part of doing business, there are points of goodness and light. The most notable of which is Pleasantville, an old Highrock city block in the rubblehood run by the Halfling, Uncle Papa Brother Knuckles, which is clean and minty fresh, covered in flowers and vines, and even has a supply of good drinking water, as well as the Scales enclave, a place of business barely tolerated by the Blue despite its normality, but such places are far and few between, and very much at odds with the rest of the city.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is not a conventional city guide in that it does not explore the city as a whole. Rather, it focuses on particular aspects of the city, with each chapter written by a different author, but it begins with an overview of its power brokers and pawns. It starts by highlighting the huge divide between the manors and estates of the wealthy and the surrounding shantytown ruins, little details such as the city’s odd status and high criminality making food supply and trade highly irregular, that many inhabitants of the city have to swear an oath of fealty to the Blue Sorceress, and instead of having a rat problem, Drakkenhall has an ooze problem! It divides its manors and estates—its ‘Estates of Significance’—between ‘Estates of Decadence’ and ‘Blood Houses’, connecting them to cults, demonic salons of science and discovery, fashion trends, and best of all, a social season with Enchanted Dance Cards each of which tracks the holder’s points with each of the Three. Suggestions are included too for the other Icons, but primarily it is with the Black, Blue, and Red Dragons, and the bearer can possibly earn one-time relationships with each one of them. There are even Fashionista Oozes which accompany their owners to parties and often react badly to fashions and styles their owners hold in poor regard and mechanical barber-surgeons like the Cut Monkey and the Amputation Mechanoid, which partially fill the void left by the lack of ready healing in the city. There are rules too for prosthetic limbs, so if a Player Character needs healing, the party had best keep a healing spell or two in reserve lest one of the automatons comes cutting… Much like the rest of Drakkenhall: City of Monsters, this opening chapter explores various aspects of the city, but in places, such the ‘Estates of Significance’, it leaves the specifics up the Game Master, and so in comparison, there are elements of the chapter that are not as interesting as the rest of the supplement.

‘Welcome to the Rubblehood’ hits some of the highlights of Drakkenhall’s ruins, for example, Hobtown, the fortified compound where the Jagged Company, a Hobgoblin mercenary unit drills daily, or the Float Royale, a pirate haven which floats just offshore, where the best beverages in the city can be found and the worst magical items in the empire go to be lost, whilst the bay itself is protected by a sleepy Dragon Turtle, who just happens to have a tame Kaiju-Shark at its beck and call. Every entry, as with the rest of the book is accompanied by a numerous adventure hooks and links to the Icons. There are more of the latter here than in other chapters, there being thirteen per Icon. ‘The Docks of Drakkenhall’ begins where the previous chapter left off at the shore’s edge, Saltside, the docks that are very much everyone’s idea of what dockside dives should be. There are Drakkenhall touches though, like the Dybbuk Inns, where guests get drugged of a night, their bodies possessed and put to some nefarious task, only to wake up with a terrible headache, but none the wiser or the Drowned District, an underwater remanent of Highrock just off  the coast, where the ghosts of the district’s former inhabitants, known as Lamenters, silently wail on the seabed, when they are not marching on the shore, likely with the aid of the Liche King. Accompanying these are quick and dirty rules for sea travel in the Dragon Empire, essentially handling them as travel montages as per the 13th Age Game Master’s Screen & Resource, whilst the Isles of Doom in the Midland Sea, Omen, which constantly spawns living dungeons that attack ships, and Necropolis, home to a massive army raised by the Liche King to threaten local shipping, are worthy of chapters of their own.

‘The Goblin Market’ is the standout chapter in Drakkenhall: City of Monsters. It describes the structure of the market from its outer Stalls to the deepest sections of Rock Bottom via the Underways; its own argot, a Goblinoid gang cant; and scam after scam, starting with all trades having to be in the market’s Blue Imp coins rather than Imperial coins, meaning currencies have to be exchanged, and then planting items on customers and claiming them to be stolen, drugging unsuspecting tourists and not only relieving them of their valuables, but delivering them ready to fight in the Fighting Pits, escalating a spilled drink into a demand for satisfaction which can only be settled in the fighting pit, and even demanding visitor’s fingers—especially if they are an Elf (such sweet meat)—as compensation for intruding on gang territory. Parts of the Goblin Market shift, but mostly it remains in Rubble City, run by the feudal mafia-like Organisation of goblinoid gangs, the most notable of which are the Rippers who operate the Double Draught speakeasy. This complete with gambling pits, a stage where even the most famous of the Dragon Empire’s entertainers have performed, impromptu blood brawls are set up, and a Halfling chef—so the food is good. Located in the depths of Rock Bottom, the Double Draught is going to be somewhere that the Player Characters are going to have to work to get to and get into, but once there, there are plenty of adventure hooks and ongoing plots to keep them coming back.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters includes lots and lots of adventure hooks, but one thing it lacks until ‘Smash and Grab’ is a sense of an overarching plot that might keep the Player Characters in the city and crossing back and forth from one location to another. What ‘Smash and Grab’ suggests is a big scavenger hunt, leading to a treasure hunt. The ‘Society of Monster Archaeologists Searching for Hoards’—or ‘SMASH’—a secret society whose members possess a degree of immunity in a city of criminals. This is because members have a reputation for being tough, even mad, having delved into the deepest, darkest, most dangerous parts of Drakkenhall and the former Highrock in search of treasure and returned. Can the Player Characters join? Of course, they can! They just have to find the headquarters first, which is a hunt in itself, then when they have, they have to prove themselves worthy. This provides reasons for longer term play in Drakkenhall as well suggestions as to where to look for treasure worthy of SMASH. There are ideas too, for the Player Character who has SMASH as part of his Background during character creation.

Penultimately, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters presents some ideas as to why exactly, the Blue does not allow Orcs into the city. None of the four options are simple, but all four of them point to the deviousness of the Blue Sorceress. They are useful if the party includes an Orc Player Character. Lastly, there are stats for the Blue Dragon as the Blue Sorceress, though whether this is who she is, is open to conjecture…

Physically, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is well written. However, the map of the city is not particularly detailed, so not as useful as it could have been, and the artwork does vary in quality.

As written, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters does not feel like a coherent book. There is no overview which might pull all of the book’s content and city description together and its treatment of the city is scattershot. That though is by design. Drakkenhall is far from a cohesive city, raucous and rowdy, lawless until someone steps out of line, order of a sought being maintained by fear, dread oaths of fealty, and the Blue Sorceress’ secret police and Kobold force of the Glinting Legionnaires. The result is that a Player Character is never going to quite get a true grasp of what the city is like and how it really works, and even if he did, there is no knowing quite what would be different if he left and came back. The Game Master is supported with plenty of new threats, a handful of new magical items, and too many adventure ideas and hooks and more to mention, so that each time a Player Character comes back there will be a new scam he has not run into, a new plot to get tied up in, and more. It also means that from one visit to the next, the Game Master never has to keep all of the city in mind, but can rather focus on particular locations and how the Icons might be involved. There are elements which Game Master will need to develop, but with half a city reduced to rubble, there are plenty of places to put them.

Ultimately, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is a criminally chaotic—to a point—and an evilly entertaining city to visit for a 13th Age campaign. Probably more than once. However, full of malevolent magics and would be marauding monsters, with a government lamentably legitimate, and almost everyone ready to swindle almost everyone else, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is probably not somewhere to stay for long.

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