Saturday, February 11, 2017
Sometimes it's good to be direct: City of Strangers is the best book I've read so far in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line. Written by James L. Sutter, it's all about Kaer Maga, a city in Varisia inhabited by outcasts from a hundred lands somehow finding a way to live together in the crumbling remains of an ancient walled fortification. A city of outlaws and slavers with an "anything goes" mentality and no central government, there's also a strong current of individuality and freedom that makes the place far more interesting than a generic hive of cut-purses. Kaer Maga itself has a fascinating history and ethos, but what really sets this book apart is the writing: it's frankly fantastic. It's colourful, laugh-out-loud funny in some places, squirm-inducing in others. There are few RPG books that are "page-turners", but this is one of them. Indeed, the book, one of the earlier ones in the line, is almost 90% descriptive flavour with very little rules crunch, which is sometimes a turn-off for me: but here, I didn't miss it. I want a full adventure path centered around Kaer Maga just so I can use this book more.
Weighing in at 64 full-colour pages, the book has one of my favourite pieces of artwork to grace a Pathfinder book: the Iconic rogue Merisiel in battle against a Bloatmage. This art is reproduced as the inside-back cover, while the inside-front cover is a really good map of Kaer Maga that shows several notable locations while making the geography of the walled city quite clear. The interior of the book is divided into seven sections.
The first section (four pages) is the Introduction. It provides a brief history of the city, much of which will get expanded upon in later sections of the book, but the way the city is related to ancient Thassilon and the Runelords made it especially interesting for someone (like me) who is involved in the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Next, the section has an overview of the various districts of the city. Unlike some Golarion cities, each of these districts has a very distinct "feel" and they don't seem repetitive. Last, there's the expanded settlement stat block for the city.
Section two, "The City", makes up the bulk of the first half of the book, weighing in at 24 pages. As you would expect, each district gets a more detailed write-up. There's Ankar-Te where undead servants openly walk the streets. The Bottoms is a district of craftsmen and day laborers firmly committed to democratic decision-making. Cavalcade is the industrial heart of the city, but one of its notable features is the Augur Temple: reclusive troll seers! The city's wealthiest residents live in Highside Stacks, and this district contains one of the most important libraries in Varisia: the Therassic Spire. Hospice is a district catering to visitors, and is full of inns, brothels, theatres, and taverns. There's a brewing antagonism between brothel owners in the district that could have surprisingly large repercussions! Oriat is something of a war-zone between clashing sects of a monastic order, but it also contains the Lyceum, a bardic college. Tarheel Promenade is the district where both divine and arcane spellcasters are likely to want to visit, as it's filled with temples, magic shops, and the like. The description makes it clear that some sort of shrine to every deity, large or small, can be found somewhere in the city. The Warren is where the city's poorest live, while Widdershins is best thought of as a "gated community" bought-up by the upper middle-class. I haven't done justice to the flavour and detail that litter these descriptions of the districts, but it will have to suffice to say that there's a lot for a GM to work with and PCs will never leave thinking Kaer Maga was "just another city." I also appreciate the little sidebars in the section, such as "City Adventure Hooks" and "Seen on a Street Corner."
Section three, "The People", is 18 pages long. The first couple of pages explain how each of the core classes and races fit into Kaer Maga. Photocopying these pages for players in a Kaer Maga-focused campaign wouldn't be a bad idea. Kaer Maga really is a city of outcasts, and, unlike most "civilized" cities, no one's going to bat an eye if an orc, tiefling, or ogre enters the city. Several paragraphs each cover the city's government (accurately described as "anarcho-capitalist") and foreign relations. A section on religion provides a little info on how some of the core deities are perceived. Abadar and Asmodeus are the most prevalent faiths in Kaer Maga, but some others receive their due; on the other hand, the "crusading" faiths of Sarerae and Iomedae don't receive a warm reaction. Last, twelve different factions in the city receive several paragraphs each of description. The groups that really stood out to me were the Augurs (the troll prophets I spoke about above), the Bloatmages (more on them below), the Duskwardens (urban rangers that keep the city safe from the threats that lay below), and the Iridian Fold (a positive representation of same-sex male couples, which is much appreciated in RPGs!). These factions, and their tensions, offer plenty of opportunity for drama and adventure in Kaer Maga.
Section four, "Beneath Kaer Maga" (11 pages) dives into the variety of threats laying under the city, which, in class gaming fashion, get more and more dangerous and mysterious the deeper down you go. What sets this chapter apart from most is how well-crafted the history and story of Kaer Maga is. Kaer Maga predates even ancient Thassilon, but during the age of the Runelords, the city served as a prison for Runelord Karzoug. What lays beneath Kaer Maga is not generic subterranean monster caverns, but things far stranger and truly unique from the prison period and before. I especially liked the map on page 52; it's useful but also looks exactly like something that could have been created in that setting. This section, of course, only gives overviews of what PCs are likely to run into beneath the city, and a GM would still need to develop actual level lay-outs and encounters. It'd be worth it though!
I don't know if I've ever seen a single-page section in a Campaign Setting book, but a random encounters table makes up section five. It's a good one that covers the surface and various subterranean levels and sensibly withholds the higher CR threats for the more dangerous areas.
Section six is a two-page write-up on the Bloatmage prestige class. These power-hungry arcane spellcasters have turned to blood-magic to fuel their abilities, and they can draw upon energies greater than traditional casters but at great cost: their bodies become more and more corpulent, and they can easily overextend themselves and collapse or fly into a homicidal rage! I never hear of players taking the Bloatmage prestige class so perhaps its drawbacks far outweigh its benefits, but I want to run one purely for the flavour.
The book ends with section seven, a two-page write-up on the Caulborn. The Caulborn, a race of hairless, blind humanoids that lurk under Kaer Maga, are a hive-mind whose goal is to collect the thoughts and knowledge of living creatures and transmit them to their hive's brain-sack. They're quite different than anything I've seen before, and I like it.
Reading this book immediately answers the question I have going into every Campaign Setting book: what's special about this place? The book is incredibly entertaining and evocative, and I had more than one "Jeez!" moment (but in a good way), like reading about a brothel with undead prostitutes ("there are some things you just can't do with a live 'un" reports regulars at The White Lady brothel, according to the book). Kaer Maga is definitely not your average fantasy city; its history and current lived reality make it a worthwhile setting for groups willing to take a turn on the darker (but not always evil) side of adventuring life. City of Strangers merits an immediate purchase.