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Tuesday 17 June 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Guidebook To The City of Dolmvay

(NOTE: I'm editing this to add that the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay is FREE to download as a PDF, so you may want to check it out and make up your own mind)

This is a review of the RPG sourcebook "Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay", written by Peter C. Spahn, published by Small Niche Games.  The book is a 210-page softcover, written theoretically for Labyrinth Lord, but obviously usable directly by any older D&D edition; and because a considerable portion is system-neutral it could theoretically be used in any fantasy RPG.

Dolmvay was apparently the product of a Kickstarter campaign, which speaks to the fandom either Spahn as a writer or his game setting in particular has.  I suspect the former; Spahn's adventuring material has been consistently good and occasionally brilliant ("Inn of Lost Heroes" and "Blood Moon Rising" are particularly recommended).  On the other hand, while I've found his larger-scale setting material adequate (and occasionally clever and somewhat innovative, like with his "Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands"), on the whole I feel that his setting stuff is just slightly too mundane to be really fascinating.  Dolmvay is no exception in this; its perfectly "O.K.", but there's nothing about it that hugely stands out to me.  Its a solid, but slightly pedestrian, fantasy city setting.

I should start by mentioning the cover art; in that I think some very unfortunate choices were made there.  The background of the cover features a (very awesome) map of Dolmvay itself. This, by itself, would have been a fine choice; but the effect is ruined by superimposing over it the image of three dudes, who I have come to call "The Three Beardos" on account that each has a fairly stupid-looking beard.  One is just a disembodied head wearing some kind of tiara; the other two are full-body drawings, the first of some kind of long-haired balding swashbuckler, the other of a guy in some kind of armor, with a cloak that looks like a white wolf's-head in what can only be considered some kind of dubious pseudo-medieval furry-cosplay.  Tiara-guy and cosplay-guy have goofy looking grins.

I'm not sure what the author was thinking; the style is kind of 'realist' (while being somewhat poor in quality) so it may be that these are people he knows (or Kickstarter backers?), but in any case artistically it just doesn't do it for me, it makes a very poor first impression.   I'll note on the other hand that the interior art is uniformly of good quality, particularly the maps and floorplans (but the rest of the art is quite good too, which makes the dubious choice of cover that much more of a mystery).

The default location of Dolmvay is the Amherth setting, which is Spahn's default setting, detailed in his Chronicles of Amherth book. Its a relatively vanilla setting, set up where humans are the dominant species, demihumans are somewhat rare, magic is uncommon (and distrusted), and the setting is set-up for low-level play (its rare to run into an NPC higher than 9th level).  Its thus neither grim-and-gritty nor high-fantasy.  The city's particular features are that it is quite ancient (featuring ruins and a vast underground network of sewers that serve as a kind of easy-access dungeon), the church of law is very powerful, and the noble houses engage in all kinds of power struggles. Its a port city and ostensibly a bastion of the forces of law and yet it has a thriving criminal underbelly and a lot of intrigue at all different social levels. There are various organizations pertinent to adventurers; first and foremost, the Adventurer's Guild.  Membership in the guild is obligatory for adventurers in the city. There are also specific sub-groups adventurers may wish to engage with: the Wardens (who are the city guard), the Company of the Wall (who are the only group legally allowed to adventure in a megadungeon known as the Great Valnwall, sadly not included in this product), the Knights of Mor (who are specialized in adventuring in the ruined city of Mor, also not included in the product), and the Gulf Sail Society (seaborne adventurers who adventure all over the Gulf of Valnwall).

As you can see, this is all very well and good, you have plenty of seed-material to run a variety of different types of campaigns, most of them D&D hallmarks, in the city of Dolmvay: scheming political campaigns, law vs. chaos campaigns, criminal underworlds, dungeon (or at least, sewer) crawling campaigns, etc.  You can even have maritime adventures. So let's check out how the product fleshes out this potential.

The chapter on ancient history gives a (by now) pretty standard litany about how this fantasy city is based on a hugely old set of ancient backstory: there was a golden age, and three great cities arose. One used tech-magic, and was destroyed by its own creations, a second was the city of Mor (mentioned above) which fell to ruins due to twisted magic, and the third was the city of Vay which fell to a civil war; but of course, much much later, a powerful duke built a new city over the ruins. This duke was the "Duke of Dolm", hence the city was named Dolmvay.  Other than providing backstory in which to set present ruin-diving adventuring there's not much of practical use in this (mercifully) short chapter.

The next few sections detail some of the standard elements of the city.  You have information on the government (a duchy with council), religion (one interesting detail is that as written, Dolmvay is a bit more medievalist than most D&D-settings, since it has a single monolithic church, the Church of Law and Order), crime and punishment (including a very useful list of punishments for various crimes), and commerce.  The calendar is covered with important feast days. You also have details of typical life in the city (which is pretty bog-standard medievalish), styles of dress, arms and armor (adventurers are allowed to carry weapons and armor on the streets, something I've never particularly liked, but that kind of fits the style of the setting); and then you have a table of 100 different pieces of gossip (some of which are listed as definitely true, some as definitely false, and some as left up to the GM).  There's also a list of common customary gestures, phrases, curses, and titular forms of address. The section on city layout details the architectural style of the city, its types of housing, street lighting (lamps in the richer neighbourhoods, shit out of luck everywhere else), water and sanitation (Dolmvay has an ancient sewer system after all), transport, walls and gates.  You get stats for typical members of the city watch and harbor watch, and the "Lawguards", who are the Cleric police of the church of Law. You also get provided the very nice city map that was the background for the cover before it got blocked by the Three Beardos.

All this and we're only about a tenth of the way into the book!

The next several sections deal with the specific neighbourhoods within the city.  Each section starts by giving broad information about the neighbourhood's location, the type of area it is (a slum, lower class, middle class, etc.), typical businesses found, guard presence, and important details to remember in general.  Then a few locations of note are detailed, and then several important local NPCs or factions (the NPCs are given background details and stats).  Most of these areas are very standard and typical; the Market district, for example, contains as locales the "market gate" (which, we are basically told, is a gate), the Dolmvay market (which is a "sprawling" market), the Inn of the Red Flagon (a tavern that's large and modern, with entertainments, good quality meals, and a specialty drink), the Pig Whistle (a pork slaughterhouse, where the pigs are kept in underground chambers, and whose owner is secretly a wereboar), the Painted Wheel (a wainwright's shop owned by a halfling), the Orphanage of St. Lucia (operated by the church, not well-maintained, currently undergoing reforms), the Open Temple (a curio shop specializing in foreign goods that very occasionally has a magic item or two for sale), and Trep's Footwear (a cobbler's shop; owned by a retired member of the thieves guild, who can make special thief boots on order that give a bonus to the "move silent" skill).
So, not bad, but nothing that really stands out as amazing adventure fodder.

Some of the NPCs or factions seem to largely be just flavoring, some are useful as contacts or to provide important services, and a tiny fraction appear to be set up for potential adventure seeds (like an assassin with orders to assassinate the Duke).  Again, however, little that leaves me truly amazed.
It is thorough, however; it covers about 50 pages.

We get a little bit of details about the places near to Dolmvay's surrounding environment (including some islands, which means that wisely the author didn't forget the maritime angle); and then details on other NPC factions of note: the King's army and navy (which are really only the Duke's, since there hasn't been a king around for a while now), knightly orders, mercenary companies, religious factions, the pagan druun cult, the church of chaos, organized crimes, demihuman groups, and then several NPCs that can't be linked to a single location or that are special enough to merit being placed here. This last list includes and "Eye of Terror" (beholder by any other name) that lives in the sewers, the aforementioned wereboar/butcher, a vampire, a female gold dragon posing as a rich moneylender, a wererat that plots against the city with his tribe (reminiscent of WFRP's skaven), a sea witch/troll living in the bay, an evil hag, and a doppelganger/assassin.

We also get a list/description of common shops and businesses, which literally include a butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. A significant part of this six-page chapter feels like filler to me.  Do we really need a paragraph devoted to describing what a candle-maker does, or a cloth merchant?  There's almost nothing of value here.

On the other hand, the chapter on Taverns and Inns is somewhat more useful, since its one of the sections most usable in general rather than just for this city in particular. There's lists of general quality levels of taverns, some special dishes and drinks found in Dolmvay, and then a set of general guidelines for how to design an interesting tavern/inn.  Finally, there's a list of 12 sample taverns.

The section on random encounters is also very decent, in line with the talent Spahn has shown in most of his adventure for making interesting random encounters that are more than just a statblock.  There's a table for each neighbourhood, and they vary from relatively standard encounters (a charming courtesan or a gang of halflings), to very special encounters that can form mini-adventures; for example, a nobleman running in fear for his life as he suspects he's being betrayed by his former bodyguards.

There's a chapter on new flora and fauna; the flora are herbs that can be used for a variety of purposes, some are for poison-resistance or healing, mild poison, but a couple are more interesting, like the vine that if untended makes it easier for thieves to climb walls, or the lichen that glows at the infravision spectrum. The fauna vary from animals (alligators are in there) to creatures unique to the Amherth setting (some of which have been previously detailed in adventures).  None of them are truly astounding.

The first appendix goes into more detail on the "Valenon", Dolmvay's very own Vatican city, a sovereign area within the city that is governed directly by the Church.  There's quite a lot of material here on church of law hierarchy, rituals, history, and politics, along with one new cleric spell, a handful of holy relics, and a list of the important Church NPCs (with stats, as usual).  There's a useful list too, of the church's Saints, with their aspects and symbol; these include "Saint Aleena" (the cleric from the Mentzer box set), and "Saint Klaus" who's the patron saint of "winter joy" and governs over the yule feast.  So in theory, you could be a cleric of the sainted order of Santa Claus...

The second appendix deals with the ins and outs of the Adventurer's Guild of Dolmvay; what they offer, what they cost, their super awesome island headquarters (really, not so much super-awesome as kind of silly), the opportunity to pay 1000gp for your party to go into their fully-stocked adventurer's dungeon.  It seems to me to be kind of nuts.  Worse, there's full floorplans and details about the Guild headquarters, even though there doesn't seem much of a point to me in having this so detailed, and not, say, a place the PCs would be more likely to actually have an adventure in (other than the dungeon level, of course). Finally, again we get a list of NPCs associated with the Guild.

The third appendix is far more promising, giving details on the vast sewer network under the city.  Here access is discussed, as is the nature of what is found at the different levels of the sewer system.  There's quite a lot of detail, including quite a lot of different hazards that can be found, and both "stock" and "detailed" encounter tables.  The former are just your standard monster or hazard, the latter are more detailed in the style Spahn is so good at writing; this latter category is divided by sewer level. Crucially, there are also several pages of full-page template layouts of sewer corridors and chambers, which can be photocopied or printed out, and then mixed and matched.

The fourth appendix is NPC Generation, which features random tables of common names and surnames for male and female NPCs as well as professions, and a d100 table of detailed personal quirks.  There's also rules for 0-level humans (and demi-humans), establishing them as baseline NPCs.

The fifth and last of the long line of appendices is on Treasures; and it starts with rules for picking pockets.  It also has some random tables for food, jewelry, precious metal, gems, and "interesting", "valuable" or "unwanted" items. There's also similar tables for "household treasure" (items you might find when robbing a home), including tables for clothing, furniture, books, common items, cosmetics, dinnerware, jewelry boxes, weapons and armor.  These last two appendices would be generally quite useful in any fantasy setting.

So what to conclude about the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay?  Pete Spahn has certainly be thorough.  If you were looking for a very detailed and minutely attentive guide to this city in this fantasy world, you'll likely be well pleased. Of course, most readers of this review likely were not looking for that ahead of time.
So is the city really great in its own right? I'd have to say "no"; I would say its "OK" in its own right, its perfectly passable, but there's nothing about Dolmvay that makes me want to play it more than Port Blacksand, or Waterdeep, or any number of other fantasy cities.  Its not really unique in any sufficiently special way.
If not that, then what about the book's utility for cannibalization; is there stuff here that will be useful for general utility in other city settings?  In that sense, Dolmvay fares a bit better; there's certainly good stuff here that you could quickly rip off for your own fantasy city, or to borrow for any other vaguely medieval fantasy city. 

In the end, its impressive for its detail and dedication, but otherwise nothing to write home about.


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  1. Honestly that cover would have made me skip this altogether as an amateur-hour project. It's that bad. Maybe they should reprint with just the map. It would be a shame for a good book to be misjudged due to a really awful cover.

  2. Just-the-map for the cover would have been really classic, it would have looked good I think. And it would have said it all really: "this is a big freaking City-book in a classic kind of fantasy style".

  3. Ha! I did the world map for the Amherth setting cover and people were like "a map for a cover looks amateurish - you should have gone with a full color image". Right now its one of those things where if a cover is enough to keep someone from checking out a free 200 page city sourcebook, well...

  4. Sorry you're getting all this flack for it; but I think you got some bad advice. I think that old-schoolers in particular (who I assume would be your main customers) would have no problem with a map for a cover.

  5. Oh, I don't mind the flack, but even you said the Amherth cover was blah (or something to that effect). I'm kind of like Clash when it comes to this stuff though. I publish what I like. If folks happen to like it too, that's great! If not, they can send me money to buy new cover art. Given that it's a free product, I don't see myself making any changes any time soon. It's really the age-old argument of substance over style. Content has always been more important to me in a product than art. I don't buy RPGs for the pretty pictures.

    Of course I might have to slam you and cuss you out and tell people how you missed that Dolmvay was a tribute to Old School products like City State of the Invincible Overlord or Lankhmar and how that must be because you are not Old School just so I can generate some more buzz. :)

    1. I actually am thinking about using this as the basis for a city in my campaign world. I want a 'generic' city.

  6. There's definitely some of the City State in your book, but I'd say Dolmvay is a lot closer to the kind of city books we saw a bit later, somewhere between Port Blacksand and Waterdeep. Its a bit too polished to be the City State.

  7. Also I think the difference with Amherth is that its cover is a lot less interesting as a map; it has a lot of empty white space (the ocean area). The Dolmvay map is much more together.

  8. Yeah, that's true about the ocean. And also yes that Dolmvay map rocks. Tim did a great job with it. Keep him in mind for your Dark Albion project. He's pretty amazing with dungeons too.