Book Review: Streets of Zobeck by Ben McFarland and Open Design

In a fantasy setting, you’re in a few general places – either above ground or below it, in a crowded place bustling with life or an old place with the scent of decay and death. One of my characters (my escaped slave rogue) preferred walls to trees any day of the week, yet many other characters (like an old elven wizard accompanying my rogue for a time) preferred the opposite. In my experience, it’s impossible to keep every member of an adventuring party happy. That tension often helps push the party (and thus the story) from place to place in a fairly predictable fashion.

When you’re in a city, it has a much different vibe than any other populated place. Cities have secrets and the warren of streets and alleyways can hide myriad dangers just as deadly as any dungeon ruin. But it’s sometimes difficult to come up with city-based adventures. Most GMs are accustomed to coming up with a quick ruin populated with monsters, but at times a city’s idiosyncrasies, eddies, and currents are difficult to map out.

Never fear – Ben McFarland’s Streets of Zobeck will save you! Open Design has once again found a niche that though flavored for the city of Zobeck in the Midgard campaign setting, I think the concepts, NPCs, adventures, and threads woven through the 94-page PDF could be transitioned to nearly any other fantasy campaign world with a big city needing a healthy infusion of corruption, greed, and larceny.

Let’s start at the beginning…

“Faces of Zobeck” kicks things off with a cast of characters from the ghost of a noblewoman and a female bard neck deep in the information trade to a drunk wizard with a gambling habit, a businessman fixer with ties to the Black Market, and a dark naga hoping to take over the entire city. Each NPC has complete stats, a bit of background, their motivations, and whatever plots they may have in place.

Some of the NPCs have supporting minions, such as the Naga Syssysalai and her rogue leader Ziv the Sly. I would have liked to have had more detail about Ziv and the others who appear as secondary characters. That kind of depth would lend itself to deeper ties to the setting and more ways to get hooks into PCs.

“Places of Zobeck” goes into detail about some interesting places that probably aren’t in the Zobeck tourist guide. What McFarland and his merry band of writers has done is create places with personality – nooks and crannies filled to the brim with little touches like beaded curtains, even more NPCs, maps, and scenarios shining a light on the dark side of the city. Everything from The Painted Man – an alchemist who can offer magical assistance for a price – to a money laundering operation and even a garden rooftop with some unique plants growing freely. Need something illicit? You can probably find it in one of the locations provided.

And then you get into the meat of the book – the adventures, all seven of them, that may offer more than a little challenge to parties from level 1 to level 10. Everything from blackmail gone wrong and waking up things in the dark underbelly of a city that should have stayed asleep to heists, clockwork abominations, and more. More details than you can shake a stick at make these short adventures perfect for filling in between larger parts of your campaign or even a campaign unto themselves.

I absolutely loved some of the names in the book as well, with Mister Corpulent and Master Doldrum, competing disreputable merchants at each others’ throats for years. Other than a place like Zobeck, where else can you visit “Corpulent’s Bazaar”? Sounds like Fast Food Row of most towns in the United States!

To avoid any spoilers, I don’t want to talk about the adventures themselves. But I found myself intrigued by the various strata of power-hungry people throughout the city seeking to secure their spot in the hierarchy or advance through the downfall of others. Throughout it all you get new little trinkets, some magical and others not, plenty of locations, more NPcs, scenarios to explore and much much more. The book is veritably overflowing with details.

At the tail end of the book you are presented with “Traces of Zobeck” so that some of what makes Zobeck a vibrant, buzzing metropolis rubs off on your PCs. Through new feats, traits, spells, and gear your players will have new toys to play with if they choose to stay a while. The idea of traits in the Pathfinder RPG works great to help tie characters together or to a place. Traits like “Former Cultist” or “One of Ours” can be the edge between knowing someone to help you out of a jam and becoming the jam between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Sometimes it truly is more about who you know than what you know.

Unfortunately for me, there was a bit of a downside to all of this information. I was disappointed by the layout of the book. I’m sure some of the pages are crammed full simply because there was so much information to include, but there were some odd page breaks where one line of a section appears on one page and the rest of the section appears on the next. Perhaps there was a hard number of pages the project needed to hit for printing purposes, but I am a big fan of using white space to let a layout breathe a bit, as opposed to cramming the page to overflowing and making it difficult to read as a result.

My other minor complaint is about the introduction of new terminology. As new terms are introduced, sometimes you can deduce the definition by its context, but many times throughout the book a name is dropped with no context and it becomes clearer down the line. There is no glossary here, nor is there a box on the first page on which a term is introduced. For example, the Spyglass Guild is mentioned early in the book, but not really detailed until later. It would have been good to have described the secret police organization early on or at least included a section on some of the major players so you’re not forced to sift through everything to get a fuller understanding.

That said, in addition to being overflowing with information, Streets of Zobeck was chock full of graphical goodness – from the artwork from cover to cover and throughout the interior to the maps (some 2D, some 3D isometric). Glen Zimmerman’s interior art, Pat Loboyko, Gill Pearce, and Jonathan Roberts should be commended on all of it.

As per usual, Open Design has put forth a great tome of gaming goodness for our roleplaying pleasure. GMs can now use the adventures as-is or pluck bits and pieces to make their own cities that much more dark and dangerous to the PCs who seek refuge there. Ben McFarland and all the talented writers and artists who worked on Streets of Zobeck did a great job. Just make sure you don’t tilt or shake the book too much or you might spill some of the jam-packed details on the floor!

Check it out at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG and be sure to stop by Kobold Quarterly to see what’s next on the horizon from those creative kobolds!

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