Legends and Lairs: City Works by Fantasy Flight Games Part 1
You could easily dismiss [Fantasy Flight Games] as a third rate knock off . . . produced by some shiftless hobo fueled on super glue and whippets.
The Legends and Lairs product line has often been overlooked in spite of their quality; and looking at their covers its easy to see that unless you're familiar with Fantasy Flight Games you could easily dismiss them as a third rate knock off product line produced by some shiftless hobo fueled on super glue and whippets. And if you did, you'd miss out on one of the better third party publishers from the d20 boom.
City Works clocks in at a 157 pages of dedicated material with an additional 16 pages previewing their next book Sorcery and Steam. I'm ignoring the preview as I own that book too and will be reviewing it later.
Chapter 1: Characters
It is a common complaint where Mike Mearls is concerned that you will have to wade through some copious amounts of cow flotsam . . .
The chapter begins with a quick explanation of the difference between an urban and wilderness environment. Why this is necessary I haven't a clue though I would wager a guess that Mike Mearls was getting paid by the word as every chapter begins with a rather redundant series of introductions and an unnecessary addition of another hundred words or so. This introduction is followed by the subheading Running Characters (pg 6 - 11). Now I want to point out that in my last review, Dragons by AEG, that I didn't come to anything useful in that book until page 10, and what I found was rather measly at best. By comparison there are already neat little ideas in this product starting at page 5 where Mike has had the forethought to provide the player with some ideas for the basic classes in an urban environment. Some of these are great, like the Barbarian as Bodyguard (pg. 6) and the Fighter as an Officer (pg. 8); while others are just so very, very bad.
It is a common complaint where Mike Mearls is concerned that you will have to wade through some copious amounts of cow flotsam in order to get to the gems that he drops every two or three pages. But my god! The Cleric is a missionary (pg 7); the Fighter an officer (pg 8); the Bard a star of the stage (pg. 6); and the fucking Druid is a damned gardener (pg. 8)? That's the best you could come up with?
And you follow up that brilliant moment by copying the officer career path onto the Ranger (pg 10), proclaiming that the Monk is a martial arts instructor (pg. 9), the Paladin is a Justicar (pg. 9), and the Rogue (pg. 10) and Wizard (pg. 11) can aspire to no greater height than Guild Membership.
Really, Mike? That's the best we can do for those guys. Nothing creative or unique just some trite mess that we have to wade through and pretend like it's all cool? Right.
it's as though they were so focused on chanting to the reader "Organization, organization, organization!" that they forgot to follow their own advise.
Next we come to the inevitable Feats (pg 11) section which manages not to provide me with anything new and should have been lumped into the General Advise (pg. 12) section instead. And while we're on the General Advise section let me just say that this section should have been at the beginning of the chapter with a fuller discussion of playing in the city environment and the proper mindset that you have to develop for the urban game. Then we should have begun talking about the base classes and tailoring them to the city life.
This book could be so much better just by cleaning up the organization of the chapters and streamlining the thoughts expressed. I swear it's as though they were so focused on chanting to the reader "Organization, organization, organization!" that they forgot to follow their own advise.
At this point in the book we come to the Urban Character Classes (pg 13 - 25). Now normally when you come across a third party character class you hold your nose and tip-toe past it hoping that your players don't dredge it up because they're usually fucked; but unlike most of my previous experiences Mike Mearls is actually able to create two usable classes in this book: the Acrobat (pg. 13 - 17) and the Pit Fighter (pg. 21 - 25). Each possess inspired abilities - I love, love the Acrobatic Maneuvers, espescially Death From Above (pg 15) - are well thought out, and don't overpower the game's base classes. Which is phenomenal.
We follow this up with Urban Prestige Classes (pg 25 - 32) which are mostly useless but there is a gem here too. The Speaker of the City (pg 28 - 30) is outstanding. The concept is really well done and it's actually carried out in thoughtful manner that makes it worth using.
The Urban Feats (pg 32 - 35) are a mixed bag with only two being worth including in your regular third edition game: Face in the Crowd (pg 33) and Opportunistic Shot [Fighter General] (pg 34). The other feats are either too nuanced to be used in a sandbox game (which mine almost always are) or just simply begging to be abused in ways that will make you regret buying this book.
The last part of this book is dedicated to Spells (pg 35 -36) and the dubious Urbanmancy Prestige Spells (pg. 36 - 39) choking the remainder of the chapter. Of those last four pages only the spell Erad's Silent Killer (pg 35) is worthy of being included in an active game. The others are mostly trash and barely worth reading.
Chapter 2: City Basics
This is the sort of chapter that can drive a man to make spread sheets
This is the real meat of the book with a detailed analysis of how a city comes together through a mindful conceptualization of the fantasy setting in its most basic sense. It is well written and thought provoking. It provides a very basic framework to organize your city around with a naive understanding of political groups, power structures, and governments.
Under no circumstances should you read this chapter.
This is the sort of chapter that can drive a man to make spread sheets detailing the resource management structures of imaginary civilizations with no tangible gain from his efforts. Following the processes detailed in this chapter will cause you to have a stroke because will spend years formulating a city that will not survive two minutes with your players.
Remember, to your players: your government is meaningless; your laws are worthless clap trap; your detailed histories will be ignored; and your magnificent city's origin story will be a joke. This is a game that can be incredibly rich and detailed but it only works if your players become interested in the world. Until they do, creating all that extra work for yourself is asking for pain and suffering. Instead of laboring for nothing skip the majority of this chapter and read the following sections: Trials (pg 77), Organized Crime (pg 78), Economics (pg. 79 - 80), and Religion (pg 80 - 84). Each of these sections have enough inspirational elements to help your game along without undercutting your momentum.
Before I finish this chapter I would like to point out that the Secrecy section (pg 84 - 85) has one of the most useless game mechanics I have ever run across. Forget that nonsense.