This year for the annual You Pick It, I Review It , you selected Vornheim: The Complete City Kit. I ventured to GenCon, and in the first hour of the dealer’s floor opening I had this small book in my hands. Now after returning from GenCon, recovering from the Con Crud, and taking care of a few other books that had to get read first (prep for a new campaign), I have completed my review of this book. I will share with you my thoughts on Vornheim and why you will want a copy in your GM toolkit.
Vornheim: The Complete City Kit  (Vornheim for short) is a 64 page, hard cover book in the A4 format. The book jacket is full color and two sided, with a rough drawn map of the city of Vornheim on the inside (a larger version of the map is available on their website). The book itself, cover included, is black and white. The layout is 2 column and the font is pretty standard. The artwork is rough pencil sketch art,which fits for the theme of the book.
The book is separated into various sections, but there are two general parts to the book. The first is about the established parts of Vornheim, the city that is featured in Zak S’ “I Hit It With My Axe ” campaign. The other part is a series of tools, tables, and tricks that Zak uses when he runs his game, bringing Vornheim to life. While the book is written with D&D (or Retro Clones) in mind, there is very little of it that cannot be ported to other systems.
The City of Vornheim
The first part of the book details the city of Vornheim. The city has a very old school feel, with its strange nobles, odd landmarks, and quirky customs. The book provides details for the city, but not so much detail that it paints a GM into a corner. They help evoke the feel for the city, and do a great job in giving Vornheim a unique feel. My favorite detail in this section is that the skins of all snakes can be read like books, and that different snakes provide different types of literature on their skins; weird and cool.
There are a number of unique locations which are also detailed within the book. Each location is given some background, a rough pencil map, and some encounters. The locations are very Gygaxian in their descriptions, and have a true sense of the alien or weird to them. My favorite is the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, which has a great background and comes complete with the Xortoise, a 4 headed tortoise with a central mouth in its shell.
The city details are great if you want to run Vornheim as a campaign location. They give you a few specific locations to drop into your game, and they also give you a good indication of the look and feel of the city. If you are not planning on using Vornheim in your campaign, you can easily borrow any of the locations and transplant them into your campaign. They will feel the most natural in a old school type of game.
The Complete City Kit
In the second section of the book, Zack supplies us with a series of rules, tips, and tables for running city adventures. This is where the book really took off for me. I found all the material in this section of value as is, or with just a few modifications.
There are a number of tables in this section designed to help the GM come up with interesting details in the middle of their game. Here are a sample of the tables that the book contains:
- Aristocrats (the various nobles within the city)
- Books (contents of found books and their value)
- City NPC’s (people to bump into on the streets)
- NPC Connections (a novel way to establish a relationship between up to 4 NPC’s)
- I Search The Body (things you find on a looted body)
In addition to the interior tables, it is worth mentioning the ingenious front and back covers. Each contains a ring of numbers (around all 4 edges on the front, and around 3 edges in the back; the fourth edge being hit locations). The mechanism is to drop a d4 onto the cover and look at what row or column the lines from the die intersect on all 4 edges. These numbers then correspond to a series of tables which you can use to make up stats for an NPC, the cost of an inn, the size of a room, or the range and damage for an attack. It is very quick and flexible, and a great aid for an ad libbing GM.
The tables are helpful, but some of the tips and rules are what make this book even more valuable. There are some great tips on how to abstract neighborhoods and their relations to one another. A helpful tip is included for creating roads on the fly using 2d10, which creates very organic looking results. There is a tip for creating building floor plans with a few d4’s that would be useful in a number of genres. There is also an equipment price shortcut that seems a bit strange at first, but I could see it being a great on the fly tool.
Vornheim also contains several sections which talk about the differences between adventuring within a city, and within dungeon or wilderness environments, with relation to movement, resources, and purpose. They are short in text but very insightful, and gave me a very different perspective about how to run city adventures and what to focus on when I do.
Why GM’s Will Want Vornheim
If you do not have any interest in Vornheim as a city, the City Kit is a great resource for running your own city adventures. Depending on the style and setting of your campaign, the tables could be used as is, or could be inspiration for creating your own tables. The advice on City Crawls, and the techniques of using the dice for locations and shapes of roads could be used in any game. Any game master who is running a city-based campaign is going to find something in this book that they can pull into their game.
Vornheim is a great resource for GM’s who lean towards improvisation. The tools given are as useful for advance prep as they are for deploying on the fly. Most of the tools only require a few standard dice, and a lookup on a single table. As a GM, I want the PDF version of this book so that I can print some of these tables out and have them at the ready, rather than flipping for them in the book.
It is hard not to think of the epic Ptolus  when you think of city supplements; it is, after all, the most definitive book detailing a fantasy city that has been made for RPG’s. If Ptolus is like the Gutenberg Bible of city supplements, I would then say that Vornheim is the Anarchist’s Cookbook. It is rough looking, edgy, and designed not to tell you about a city, but to empower you to create your own. It is purposefully incomplete, and thus creates gaps that your mind will fill in as you read each section. Armed with the tools between these two covers, a GM will be prepared to bring Vornheim or any fantasy city to life.