City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Communities
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
Alternative
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!
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3 thoughts on “City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

  1. Oh wow, I think I remember picking this book up and reading a few entries. Considered buying it but I thought the author sounded like an alien trying to describe what a “town” is. Thanks for the heads-up!

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