Last weekend I finally picked up a copy of Zak Smith's Vornheim at Dundracon.
I'd been meaning to pick it up for a while, but when it comes to reference material - particularly in the rarified world of RPGs - I have learned to be very circumspect. Who does not remember picking up their first copy of the World of Greyhawk setting? The maps, the charts, the tables, the NPCs, the names, the places, the histories, the racial politics, the inclement and average weather tables, the holiday calendars... yawn. The indefatigable minutiae!
In general I try to avoid anything of that type; where rules are written into a setting in such a way that an alleged "game aid" becomes an enormous albatross around your neck, tying you to a particular setting and condemning you to struggle against a plethora of stat blocks, charts and oblique references to canonical material FOREVER. Or at least until you chuck the manual and write up your own homebrew.
Thus I waited to procure Vornheim until I could put my grubbly mitts on it and read it. Nothing against Zak; I avidly follow his blog and admire his acumen when it comes to gaming, even if our opinions on some things might differ.
And this is what I found: crunch. Flavorful crunch! Crunch which not only adds flavor but with a great many fast-and-loose tricks to overcome the double whammy of poring over references and doing bookkeeping. This book is a game aid in it's truest sense; providing you with quick ways to deal with the sort of obstacles that break the flow of a game session and get through what is often the dullest part of RP gaming; getting around in town, finding the right store, obtaining contacts, information, handling chases, creating floor plans, you name it!
Nor is it simply a collection of ad hoc methods for running city games. As Zak says in his introduction:"...anyone hoping they bought a book containing The Real Vornheim That The D&D With Pornstars Girls Play In has got it.These are our rules and tables and monsters and places. I wouldn't want to spend all this time writing a book I couldn't use."
The book contains a few points of interest in the Vornheim setting; a library and a zoo. I'm not sure which I would hate to be trapped in, myself. They are both very dungeon-crawly places without being proper dungeons. There is some detail concerning just a few of the NPCs mentioned in the I Hit It With My Axe web series; certainly enough to fill in any back story for fans.
But the crunch, the conveniences this book provides are the true gold, even to homebrew DMs like myself. Say the party has met a smattering of NPCs and wants to know if there is any kind of relationship between them; there's a chart for it. Want to know if the information source a PC spoke with is secretly a double agent, feeding information to enemies? There's a chart for it. Need to roll up the floor plan for a house all impromptu-like? How does 30 seconds strike you?
This book is dense. At just over 8 inches by 6 inches in hardcover, it packs a wallop! One of my laments of RPG publications, particularly during the 2nd edition days of D&D, is that a $25 splat book might be 84 pages long, of which only 6 pages is actually useful; two new spells, a dozen class 'kits' you will never use, and 4 new magic items which frankly don't contribute much to the game. Snore!
Not so, Vornheim! Vornheim has useful charts everywhere, both random-roll and die-drop. Every page is used. There are die drop charts on the front and back cover, and on the dust jacket there are instructions on how to use those two charts for generation of creatures, characters, locations and attacks. There's also a readily-customizable map of inner Vornheim on the inside of the dust jacket. Too small for you? There's a URL to a large printable version. Damn!
I have to give this book a rating of 4.999999 stars out of 5. My only complaints are that I wish there were more of it, and more of Zak's art in it, but then it might be a bit bloated. The rules and charts are more focused on Old School Rules systems than Pathfinder, but not in any significant way. Converting the OSR stuff to your group's native system should not be any sort of deterrent; nothing is completely dialed in to one rule set and wherever necessary basic alternate stats are provided. For example, in the basic stat bloc for monsters you are given AC in both Old School and D&D d20-based formats.
I could go on about the virtues of this book, but there's really no need. This is a GM's aid that really aids the GM; a rarity! Get it. It's available at your FLGS (and if not, ask them WHY!?) or online in both hardcopy and PDF versions from just about everywhere. Why are you still reading this? Go!