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
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
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!

5e Character Generation pt II

Welcome back for part two of the character generation process. If you haven’t read part 1, hop back to the previous post. This series of posts are developed in conjunction with So jump over there to see the different

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Character Generation – A Look at the New D&D Player’s Handbook

I’m doing a parallel character generation post with my buddy over at, make sure you watch for his posts. You can read my new post over at, sub, kick me on Google+ and Twitter.


Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).

So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.

Overall Impression

It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.


Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.

What Once Was Will Be Again

It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.

I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.

Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic

Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.

Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.

Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.

So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.

But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.

But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:

1997 – Purchases D&D brand

2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL

2003 – Releases D&D 3.5

2005 – Begins development of 4e

2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)

2010 – Releases D&D Essentials

2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements

2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)

WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.


Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)

Things I Like:

  • Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
  • Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
  • Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
  • Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
  • Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
  • One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
  • Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
  • Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy

Things I Dislike:

  • Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
  • Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
  • Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
  • Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
  • 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
  • No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
  • No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
  • Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage

So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.

Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.

Review: Dungeon Terrain by Blue Panther LLC

DSC_0171Have you heard of Blue Panther LLC? I hadn’t either until just recently. I stumbled across them honestly because of Free Comic Book Day (May 3rd). I’ve never been a comic book person, but it did remind me I needed to look up the date for Free RPG Day (June 21st). Hopefully I won’t utterly forget it like I do Game Master’s Day (March 4th) every year.
So while looking up Free RPG Day, there is a handy short list of the free goodies that will be arriving at your local FLGS. A lot of it is the standard fare, one-shot adventures, quick start rules, a few paltry accessory offerings, etc. What did catch my notice was the Meeple mini dice tower by Blue Panther.
I hadn’t heard of Blue Panther before so I hopped over to their website. They’re in Michigan, they have a laser engraver, they use said engraver to fulfill print-on-demand orders, usually in wood.
What I liked looking through the website was their Dungeon Terrain ($20). Anyone familiar with modular dungeon tiles? Same thing but they’re not printed high gloss images on heavy card stock but plain grey on 3mm thick wood. The 1″ grid is engraved into the tile surface.
  • 2 5×5″ rooms
  • 2 4×4″ rooms
  • 4 3×3″ rooms
  • 2 2×2″ rooms
  • 6 1×5″ halls
  • 6 1×4″ halls
  • 9 1×3″ halls
  • 6 1×2″ halls
  • 15 1″ squares
– It’s modular dungeon terrain, perfect if a wet/dry erase mat isn’t your deal
– It’s birch plywood so you don’t have to worry about bending/warping them in transit
– Blue Panther goes the extra mile by slapping some stone texture on the pieces to really up the table visual
– Multiple base colors & custom base colors available at no extra charge
– Every piece is general purpose, you can run any scenario and nearly every scenario with one purchase.
– Like other modular terrain it’s light and prone to sliding around on flat surfaces during play
– It’s still THIN wood (3mm), liable to break if you get rough with it
– The engraved grid is difficult to see at any sort of distance
– Paint coverage, many of my pieces didn’t get a good shot of paint along the edges*
– Every piece is plain, you’ll have to find a different way to denote stairs, changes in elevation, and blocking terrain in a room
– No 2″ wide halls
*This is subjective. I liked the look more because it gave a stained tile grout look between the pieces that screams dilapidated dungeon to me. But it appears unintentional rather than intentional, thus Con.
If I’ve only got $20 budget for my whole DM/GM budget I’m still going to buy a Paizo GameMastery Flip-Mat (maybe even 2 for $20). Between Dungeon Terrain and other modular offerings you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that does the job better for the price.
The Dungeon Terrain is light, durable, and looks good. If you have a problem with tiles sliding around, invest in some cheap shelf liner. You can either drape the liner over the play surface or cut and glue it to the back of individual pieces, works like a charm. I also suggest a fine-point permanent marker or black paint wash to fill in the engraved grid to make it more visible.
The biggest failing in my eyes is the lack of 2″ wide hall pieces. Contemporary dungeon design uses 2-3″ wide hallways rather than 1″. I have to get a little too creative with my pieces to make ‘T’ and Cross intersections of 2″ wide halls (which are pretty common).
If you’re looking to get the most out of Dungeon Terrain I suggest pairing 1-2 Dungeon Terrain sets with other modular terrain to get yourself plenty of 2″ wide halls and specialty pieces (stairs, dais, doors, etc). While you’re out, pick up an off-label Jenga game and some spray paint with stone texture to make some walls. Just that extra vertical dimension really adds something to the visual and makes it feel like you’re looking down into a room.
The conclusion? Blue Panther’s Dungeon Terrain is a solid offering and definitely has a place with my gaming goods. I think it’s a great gift idea for any GM/DMs you know.
You can pick up Dungeon Terrain at Blue Panther’s website:
under Dice Towers & Accessories. They also offer a host of other products that may pique your interest. Like and leave a comment if you would like to see more reviews and special features in the future.

RPG… ish, Or Not

Recently I finished playing through Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3. For those of you unfamiliar with the title it is a JRPG produced by Level 5 in coordination with Studio Ghibli. The former responsible for titles such as Dark Cloud and Professor Layton. The latter is arguably the pinnacle producer of anime cinema in Japan; producing such works as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Needless to say as a fan of RPGs and Studio Ghibli’s trademark style and storytelling I was highly anticipating a chance to play the game. Not to worry though, I am not about to turn the blog into a review platform for video games. This is the internet after all, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fledgling video game reviewer or critic. What I want to speak about is not the merits and flaws of the video game itself but in the thought it sparked in my mind after the credits rolled.

I had just completed 65+ hours of a game under false pretenses. I was sold a lie and gobbled it up like full size candy bars on Halloween. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was billed and reviewed by multiple sources as an RPG. But looking back on my experience as the credits rolled and by a cruel twist of fate subsequently watching Idea Channel’s ‘Controlling Vs. ‘Being’ Your Video Game Avatar’.

The game I just sank hours into under the illusion of an RPG was in fact not an RPG. To state then what a role-playing game is let’s use this definition from Wikipedia:

A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines

I reviewed the time spent playing Ni No Kuni and realized at no point, not one singular instance, did I make a decision that led to character development or impacted the narrative. The only decisions available to me as a player was choosing my stable of monsters (absolutely in no way… or absolutely like Pokemon), equipped gear and items, and which if any of the side errands I completed. None of the side errands impact the game’s narrative. It would be difficult to call the plot linear because it not just resembles a line, it is a line. Point A to Point B and you’re just along for the ride. Awkward tactical time, strategic combat and ‘quests’ don’t make a game an RPG, though apparently people think that now. If I as the player have no agency in the plot and its outcome other than binary success or failure to complete the game it is not an RPG. This game then is no more an RPG than the average shooter or fighting game.

Upon further reflection I came to a strange epiphany, did I now take part in a culture of video games where sports games where actually more RPG-like than the games being billed as RPGs. Recently in addition to Ni No Kuni I have been playing MLB The Show. Playing the Road To The Show mode the player creates and controls one player from the draft, AA & AAA minor leagues, and MLB career to the All Star Game, and Hall of Fame. Every choice and action during and in between games has the possibility to advance the player’s career or penalize him. The character has to deal with the whims of the manager, fighting for a place in the starting lineup (or losing it), negotiating contracts and dealing with being traded to another team. Each facet of the RTTS career mode gives me agency. I determine the strengths and weaknesses of the character, how well he performs in clutch situations, whether he goes to free agency. And unlike many RPGs where losing a battle just means try again or reload the latest save file to make a second attempt in an identical battle sports games are never the same. If my pitcher blows a save opportunity and loses the game I don’t get prompted to retry the event, I live with the results and try not to suck at the next game (one nice thing about having over a hundred games in a season). Even reloading the latest save won’t prompt you with the same situation. Replaying an individual game is always different.

There’s no grand storyline in sports games. It’s a character driven story. I create my own thrilling victories with walk off home runs and crushing despair by striking out the last out of the 9th inning at home with the bases loaded. Even XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is more an RPG than some recent RPG titles. At least in it I have to determine which country I ignore alien abductions within. There is a difference between an RPG and interactive storytelling. Perhaps Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation in his review of Beyond Two Souls stated it most poignantly when referring to interactive storytelling video games as watching a movie you have to pause every few minutes. That’s a frustrating movie experience and an even worse gaming experience. I should not have to feel like I’m doing busywork to watch a predetermined story unfold.

I guess for me an RPG must consist of controlling an avatar that must make a difficult choices, often moral in nature, and live with the consequences of such decisions. The decisions and their consequences then coalesce to define the development of the character. At least for me this is something I try to bring to the forefront in my games from behind the screen. To watch characters and their associated players chew through difficult decisions to which there is no singular, sterling plan of action with no consequences.

In a recent game the party invaded a camp of dwarf workers in the beginning of an underground construction. The camp and its construction site had been overtaken by kobolds. In the fledgling beginnings of a great hall the adventurers battle through the last of the kobolds. The final kobold surrenders begging the party, and freed dwarf workers, to spare the two white dragon wyrmlings. The party found themselves in a dilemma. They might butcher innocent, infantile creatures or allow them to escape and grow up and potentially ravage the countryside one day. Half the party was for slaughter and the others had moral hangups with the murder of majestic wild animals on a ‘what if’ situation. In the end the party decided to let the kobold and the two wyrmlings free. Will it come back to haunt them, or perhaps pay unexpected dividends? Maybe, maybe not.

What do you think? Some people enjoy the beer and pretzel games of slaying monsters, gain loot, and never going beyond that. But at least from my own personal experience and most other people I have seen weigh in on complementing issues is that the nature of those who play RPGs is to delve in and develop characters. That means making difficult decisions and of course making mistakes and living with the consequences of a PC’s actions.

Story Forge Cards Review

In general I’m a conservative consumer. I don’t spend a lot of money and I don’t do so often, especially on impulse buys. So I’ve come to realize something is special when I see it for the first time and have an immediate impulse and actually purchase. This was my experience with Story Forge Cards. storyforge

What are Story Forge Cards?

The product is a writing aid created by B.J. West. It is a large deck of cards used to brainstorm ideas by presenting archetypal elements of narrative structure and have the user create meaningful representations of the elements and string the elements together.

Physical Appearance

There are 88 cards in the deck. The cards are large, I suspect the average size of a Tarot card. Each card is constructed of durable plastic with full color printing on the face and back. Like a Tarot card whether the card is upright or inverted changes the meaning; often this change is to the near opposite (such as ‘The Devil’ having an opposite of ‘The Angel’. The deck consists of five ‘suits’: Destiny, Emotion, Identity, Wealth, and Will. Destiny cards represent large life-changing events. Emotion cards represent (you guessed it) epic feels. Identity cards represent how the subject views itself and/or world views it. Wealth represents something tangible and material while Will represents a positive or negative effect of the subject’s mental fortitude.

Using The Cards

First off shuffle and cut the deck. Each time you cut the deck instructions say to twist the stack since the card’s orientation matters. Choose a ‘spread’ from the instruction booklet depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Developing a character, use the character background spread. There is also a quick pick spread to quickly add some depth to minor characters. Spreads also include genre staples such as Film Noire, The Action Film, The Hero’s Journey, Love Story, etc. You then deal cards into the spread as illustrated in the booklet. Each card position represents a point of consideration. Each card comprises a vague idea to which you specify after completing the spread.

Sample Spread

I used the cards recently to add some depth to a central NPC being used for the recent RPG arc I’m DMing. To develop the character I used the Character Background spread.

  • The Character’s Base Nature: Restraint (Wealth)
  • Influence of the Universe: Lust (Emotion)
  • The Character’s Achilles Heel: The Devil (Destiny)
  • Influence of Friends and Family: Fortune (Destiny)
  • The Character’s Driving Passion: The Burden (Will)
  • The Character’s Destiny: Defeat (Destiny)
  • What Stands Between the Character and Its Destiny: The Gamble (Wealth)

If you’re anything like me just reading through the list shows how great of a springboard a process like this can be. I can punctuate definite ideas for how the cards manifest for the character and naturally begin looking for ways to string them together into a comprehensive patchwork. Occasionally the something will just not work. The first solution the booklet offers is to flip the troublesome card around and uses its ‘opposite’ to see if that gets the creative juices going. Still stuck? Slap a new card down in its place.

The Good

The cards work. In the time I have played with them I feel they have really given me a boost in creativity. The cards are vague enough and varied enough to conjure possibilities and connections that are not the foremost in my mind. Even with some of the larger spreads I have run the results are complex without being overly convoluted. I did receive some card lays that were a challenge to make something coherent. I saw it as a creative challenge, a chance to really stretch the head muscles to fit something that at first glance seems out of place, off the wall, into the rest of the creation in a meaningful way.

The Bad

As stated the cards are larger and the deck is thicker than your average deck of playing cards. I have pretty stubby fingers so shuffling the deck has not been a quick or graceful event. I expect I will get better dealing with the cards in time but if the subtle artistry of shuffling eludes you this product may grind your nerves. Some of the card lays are just strange. The vagueness is a blessing and a curse. Some card lays I would find myself staring at the card drawing a blank for how it fits; imagine drawing ‘The MacGuffin’ for a character’s base nature. The Story Forge Cards are a writing aid first and foremost. Yes, they are helpful for RPGs but it is not their primary focus.


I say buy it (I did after all). It’s a powerful tool that will help you develop better stories. The secondary benefit may be you have better RPG plots. I would like to try them during the character creation phase of an RPG campaign to help players develop their characters. If you’re also a fiction author (especially new to the craft) it is a useful device. It will help you write better original ideas and keep you from some of the common neophyte problems like Mary Sues and one dimensional characters.