Edited February 12th, 2019: The author of the book has since been revealed as an abuser of the worst sort. Details here. The review should no longer be taken as my personal endorsement to purchase it, as I understand he receives royalties from its sales. The review has not been changed apart from the addition of this note.
I recently purchased a copy of Vornheim: The Complete City Kit. Then, even more recently, I purchased another copy to give as a gift. It was an easy decision, as it is laughably cheap for its page count of 64, hard covers and book jacket. Also, it’s a pretty damn good book.
Vornheim is written by Zak S. of Playing D&D with Porn Stars (and indeed, I do not think I have ever seen quite so many adult entertainment professionals credited in a roleplaying game book) and I Hit It with My Axe, and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
With a pedigree such as that, you might be forgiven for assuming it filled with gratuitous depictions of sex and gore. However, it is not so! To the contrary, it is printed chock-full (and I mean full) of tools, advice, and game material for running a fantasy city. Any city, not just Vornheim.
When I say “full”, I am not exaggerating. There’s precisely two blank pages in the entire book, and those are most likely due to the difficulty of printing on both sides of the flyleaf. Apart from that, there are charts on the covers, the rules for using them on the inside covers, and the city map is on the inside of the book jacket. The layout is tight and there are a couple of tables where the type is positively minuscule.
So, it’s crammed to bursting, but crammed with what?
Vornheim is not a traditional city sourcebook, in the vein of Sharn: The City of Towers or City of Lies or City of Splendors, or the rest. For one thing, it doesn’t have “City of” in its title. Also, it does not describe all that much of the city itself. Instead, it gives the GM the tools to run the city, or any other fantasy city. There is some description of Vornheim itself, and some adventure locales such as the medusa Eshrigel’s manor, and a few pages of ideas, rumours and legends of the city. My favourite is how the clerics of Vorn are forbidden to use blunt weapons, for they are a sign of hypocrisy.
Most of the book, however, is dedicated to GM tools for running a city adventure quickly. There’s a fast guideline for determining the prices of mundane items, there are guidelines for drawing floorplans and street maps, random charts and tables for aristocrats, other NPCs, stuff found on dead bodies, shopkeepers, whatever. Also, many of them do not work by rolling numbers but by dropping d4’s on top of the page (or the covers) and checking where they land. This is delightfully innovative.
The NPC tables also come with several columns, so that with a single roll, you can get a full premade aristocrat or other NPC, or you can roll several times for something different. For example, if I request my dice bot for 6 d100 and apply the numbers 54, 6, 16, 35, 84, and 62 to the Aristocrats chart, I get… Orrik von Klaw, the Minister of Imports and Licences, an energetic man, full of black humour (and with an unfortunate addiction to white mushroom powder). He is also the friend of… (and let us turn to the random NPC table, with the numbers 99, 38, 36 and 78…) Gorn the Fondler, a chandler who also happens to be an officious busybody who writes down information on everybody he meets.
The tables are a very quick way to produce NPCs with personalities. The charts on the covers will also spit out their classes, levels and hit points if need be. The NPCs they produce remind me a lot of another Lamentations of the Flame Princess book, People of Pembrooktonshire. The genre of the book is definitely weird fantasy. The NPCs will range from quirky to outlandishly strange (my favourite result in the NPC chart is “Has bizarre fungus colony growing in stomach. Knows it, and sings/recites poetry to it each night before going to bed. If slain, the colony will escape.”).
But then, if you want an ordinary NPC you can just not roll for that column.
There are also weird things like the idea that all snakes are actually books that can be read by those in the know, and they constantly hiss out their titles. Ordinary snakes are ordinary books, such as coral snakes usually being cookbooks, while the magical species of serpentine creatures will be unique poetry or the like. Dragons are books of magic.
What few stats there are for some stripe of retroclone (and monster stats for those are more or interchangeable anyway), with one page right at the end giving condensed 4E versions of them all. For the most part, though, the book is wholly system-independent and can be used with equal ease in any edition of D&D or GURPS or whatever fantasy game you’re running.
Once I next run a game set in a fantasy metropolis, I will most certainly have my Vornheim by my side, whether it be set in Sigil or Kaer Maga or the City of Greyhawk. I think you might want to take look at it, too.