Review of Ptolus

This is Monte Cook’s City by the Spire for D&D 3rd edition, all 800 pages of it. I daresay it would run as well under Pathfinder. Mr Cook ran this setting under 2nd edition D&D for a time, then evolved it in parallel with working on the 3rd edition, so the two developed in parallel.

Add in the adventures and other stuff that you get with it, and the whole package is literally the size of Tolstoy’s War And Peace.

I’ve had my eye on Ptolus for some time, and a sale by Malhavoc Press dropped the price point for the PDF to the level where I didn’t feel too guilty about buying it, even though it’s unlikely I’ll run it. This is why I’m so far behind the curve; Ptolus is from 2006 or so.

What we have here is a setting aimed at both urban and dungeon adventures. It’s written like a guidebook, with broad sweeps of information at a high level, drilling down into detail for things that the players are likely to be interested in.

Ptolus has been described as "D&D with the volume turned up to 11". The conceits of the game are the conceits of the setting; for example, adults believe in monsters and magic because they see both on a daily basis. The dungeon, a series of labyrinths below the city, draws adventurers like the goldfields of 19th century California; and the citizens of Ptolus are used to that.

Ptolus has the look and feel of a late-Mediaeval German city. I blame Warhammer, although I have no evidence that Mr Cook plays it, because since the emergence of WHFB fantasy settings have moved gradually away from pulp fantasy and high fantasy towards clockpunk. But I digress.


Wherein Monte Cook explains how and why Ptolus came to be, its symbiotic relationship with D&D 3rd edition, and how to use the book.


The next 22 pages are the player briefing; the remaining 750+ pages are GM-only territory. The player briefing is available as a separate file so you can distribute it to the group.


  • The world of Praemal itself only gets 8 pages – the setting is the city, not the world around it. There is a brief gazetteer at the nation-state level, and descriptions of some materials unique to the setting.
  • PC and NPC races get 11 pages. The standard ones, a few less common races, and a chart showing who likes, dislikes and tolerates whom.
  • Cosmology and religions: 16 pages. The most innovative view here is of the Galchutt, and why they are on Praemal. The assorted chaos cults are also worth reading.
  • History: 14 pages. Eleven millenia of the history of Praemal, as it relates to Ptolus.
  • Organisations: 54 pages. This is where I started to perk up and take interest. Ptolus is defined more by the groups which inhabit it than the maps (pretty though they are); there are dozens of them, with goals, motivations, statblocks for NPCs, and interactions with other groups, summarised on a colour-coded chart.


12 chapters, 203 pages. The first of these chapters covers the city in general (flavour, government, economy, layout, climate, inhabitants, etc); after that, each district has its own chapter (flavour, how to run it, people, rumours, locations in varying levels of detail, specific NPCs, adventure seeds). These are interspersed with sidebar snippets about tavern etiquette, gambling and so on. Each district chapter also has floorplans of key locations and a few minor dungeons.


Likewise, there is a chapter on the dungeon below the city in general, followed by another for each major area of the dungeon. 5 chapters, 69 pages. The dungeon – actually a collection of caverns, complexes and underground cities, connected in various ways – isn’t fully mapped in detail; there are a variety of modules that the DM can use for adventures, but there is also a lot of empty space to fill in. Whether that’s good or bad is your call.


This describes the two major locations in the Spire itself, which tower over the city throughout the campaign. Two chapters, 51 pages. These chapters contain location keys and descriptions for the two redoubts, which are best tackled by high-level, well-prepared adventurers; they refer to a poster map, which it took me a while to realise is actually in the download, about page 680 or so.


Five chapters, 31 pages. What it’s like to live in Ptolus; daily life, crime and the law, technology (more Warhammer-style dwarven clockpunk), being an adventurer, and chaositech. This last is the evil twin of dwarven or Imperial technology, and again calls Warhammer to my mind, as well as the organic technology from Dark Conspiracy.

This part is often written in the second person – "You know the laws of the city and avoid breaking them, at least obviously so, as often as you can." for example. I could see the chapter on life as a delver being a player handout. The chapter on crime, law and punishment is useful, in particular because it details what illegal activities adventurers can and cannot get away with, and why.


This section has 78 pages of campaign advice in 6 chapters, covering general advice, urban campaigns, adventures, monsters, magic, and prestige classes.

This begins by considering the types of campaign a DM might run in Ptolus (and given the size and cost, you’ll probably run more than one if you take to the place at all). Story arc vs episodic; dungeon crawling vs criminal syndicate adventures a la Grand Theft Auto vs wars vs intrigue; campaigns focussed on a specific feature of the city; prophecies and their fulfilment; character goals and their interaction with any of the above; recurring villains.

It then moves into scenario creation and balance with the thoroughness I have come to expect by this point.

Next, we have a chapter of episodic adventures which should take the characters up to about 4th level, and a suggested outline weaving together the various adventures from the book into a path taking the PCs from level 1 to level 20.

Then, there are the obligatory chapters of setting-specific monsters, spells and prestige classes. I tend to glaze over at these, because it’s my habit to stick to the core rules for such matters.


This review is already pretty long, so I have skipped over the glossaries, the two adventure packs (Night of Dissolution and The Banewarrens), the maps and keys at the end of the book, the handouts (calendars, broadsheets, tavern menu, random encounter matrices, city-at-a-glance, where to go to buy stuff, proclamations, wanted posters, character sheets, Imperial Citizenship Papers, want ads and so on. Suffice to say they are many and entertaining.

Things I like:

  • Above all, the concepts. Evil as a physical and infectious substance, and the implications of that idea. The spire and the reason for its existence. The conceits of the game being the conceits of the setting.
  • The level of detail. If this takes your fancy, you could run your players around Ptolus for a decade without needing anything other than this and the core rulebooks.
  • The cross-referencing. When a location or NPC from another chapter is mentioned, there is a page reference so you can flip directly to the detail.
  • The chart of relationships between groups, and the groups themselves. I particularly like the Sisters of Silence – female vigilante monks patrolling the streets.
  • There are all manner of invisible or extraplanar places to find and explore, if you can. In Ptolus, there is always another layer beneath or behind what the players think they have found.

Things I don’t like:

  • There’s more Renaissance and clockpunk technology than I prefer in a fantasy setting; firearms, ID papers, broadsheets, steam-powered airships.
  • The setting has its own calendar. I know it adds to the flavour, but it also adds to the difficulty of playing in and running the setting.
  • A 22-page player handout. You should be able to put the key facts of the setting on one page. Most of my players won’t read even that much.
  • There’s a lot of material to familiarise myself with, as the DM, before I could start running it.


This is the go-to setting for the total immersion D&D 3E crowd; it’s better at retaining the feel of D&D than its stablemate Eberron, and I can see that you could easily run several entire campaigns here without ever touching the world outside the city walls.

Or, you can ignore most of the city, and focus in on Delvers’ Square, which is constructed to have everything a dungeon-crawling party needs. I think that would be the answer to my concern about how much study I’d have to do before running Ptolus; start with the Square, and work out gradually.

I’m unlikely to run the city in its current form, but it’s a fine example of how to create a city, and there are a wide range of ideas, characters, maps and situations I can repurpose. Plus, I enjoyed reading it in its own right.

It’s impressive.

I’m impressed.

Friendly Know-It-All

Last Saturday my post referenced Richard Bartle’s player archetypes. I’ve since found a test to determine one’s orientation on a Kingdom of Loathing fansite. So naturally, I took it.

I came out with a high score in spades (Explorer) and almost as high in hearts (Socialiser), which according to the site makes me a “Friendly Know-it-All”.

That actually fits quite well. I’m more interested in understanding the game, and relaxing with friends, than I am in winning. Perhaps this explains my focus on the minutiae of the rules, and thus the didactic posts on this blog.


Review of Pathfinder RPG

So, I cracked and bought Pathfinder from Paizo. $20 got me a 578 page core rulebook, and a 330-page bestiary, both as PDF downloads – the hardback dead tree versions are roughly five times that price, so maybe later.

A detailed review of a 900 page game in the space of one blog post isn’t viable, so here are the headlines…


  • The core rulebook equates to the D&D player’s handbook and dungeon master’s guide combined, and the bestiary equates to the monster manual. I think it would be viable to run an urban/intrigue style campaign without the bestiary, using the races and classes in the core book only.
  • The rules engine is essentially D&D version 3.5, but the character classes have been buffed to bring their capabilities in line with basic 3.5 plus splatbooks.


  • I can buy all of the components as PDF downloads. This is essential for me these days.
  • The downloads arrive with one version in a single file, and another version where each chapter is a separate file. Nice touch.
  • Pathfinder preserves my investment in D&D 3.5, rather than making it obsolete. Statblocks are pretty much identical, and there is a free 3.5 to Pathfinder conversion guide on the Paizo website.
  • The classes encourage players to stay within a single class. (Rant) Most game systems spend a lot of effort limiting which characters can do what, and then even more effort on adding ways to get around those limitations, which makes character design an exercise in splatbook mastery. Either have character classes and stick with them, or don’t have ’em at all. (End rant. I feel better now.)


I expect my dislikes are irrelevant to the Pathfinder target audience, which is 3.5 players who don’t want to migrate to 4E.

  • No pregenerated characters, setting information, or sample adventure. I’d like half a dozen pre-built PCs so my players and I can just dive in and get on with it. I can live without the setting and adventure stuff, but this suggests to me Pathfinder isn’t aimed at drawing in new players. However, there is a beginners’ boxed set out later this year (2011) which might address that point.
  • No free quickstart edition of the rules. Even WotC eventually realised this is a must.
  • No printer-friendly version of the PDFs. This is a minor niggle as realistically I’m not going to print out 900 pages of rules and lug them around with me anyway. (I would do that for the quickstart version if it existed.)
  • None of the iconic D&D monsters – beholder, mind flayer, carrion crawler etc. This is for copyright reasons, the OGL doesn’t allow their use and Pathfinder depends on the d20 OGL.


$20 well spent, even if I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with it yet; Ptolus or Dungeon Bash, maybe. I’ll probably get one or more of the setting books as well.

WotC, this is how you should have done 4E. ‘Nuff said.

How Old is that Liche?

Yeah, I know, as old as he needs to be for the storyline.

Still, I wanted to work that out from the Savage Worlds Rules As Written. That would give me a minimum age, and thus allow me to describe the liche better in play (“You see a long-dead corpse in the regalia of a court wizard of the Empire of the Wolf. As you creep closer, its red eyes open, and the apparition speaks…”)

See, I started with the impression that liches would have to be hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. I was wrong.

If you look at the SW liche, and assume it started off with the same stats as a Novice PC, it needs 61 advances to get to the statblock in the rulebook. My assumption from earlier posts is that it takes about 18 months for NPCs to earn an advance. Assuming he started racking up advances about age 18, then, the stock liche is about 110 years old. He could be older, and have used more advances to bump up things not listed in the statblock – Connections, for example, or other skills.

So, the liche could be dressed in the fashions of your great-grandfather’s time, or any earlier period. Or a later one, if he wanted, I suppose.

Review of CSP and Paratime

This review is just to alert you to the fine cartography available at two sites; Crooked Staff Productions and Paratime Design. Assuming you didn’t already know, that is.


Crooked Staff Productions offers a wide range of free downloads, mostly aimed at Tolkienesque fantasy. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Interior maps of common mediaeval structures.
  • A range of 30 modular, greyscale dungeon maps, 100′ x 100′. Each is available as a 5′ to 1" battlemat, or as a one page dungeon style sheet for the GM. These are delightful, and my only complaint is that the GM version should have had the rooms numbered.
  • Similar modules for science fiction "dungeons". These ones are coloured and numbered, but JPEG files rather than PDFs.
  • Continental and regional scale maps of the artist’s own campaign world, which mimic the look of the endpaper maps in The Lord of the Rings.
  • Detailed small settlements and adventures from that campaign world, ready to drop into your own campaign


Paratime Design also has a number of free downloads, which are governed by the Creative Commons licence. They include, but again are not limited to:

  • Dungeons. Literally hundreds of dungeons of all sizes, in numerous formats; greyscale, coloured, textured, old-school blue, with numbers, without numbers, it’s all here.
  • Interior maps of common mediaeval structures. To my mind these complement the CSP ones rather than duplicating them.
  • Starship deck plans.

I intend to use the CSP modular greyscale dungeons as complexes within the Irongrave megadungeon, and both those and the Paratime dungeons as one-off, smaller labyrinths.

Personal Upkeep

I find it useful to know the cost of long-term upkeep for a PC, and extend that into how much NPCs earn.

There’s not a lot of hard historical data for the 12th century, at least not data easy for a dabbler like myself to find. Prices and wages seem to have fluctuated wildly, with most transactions being barter – a day’s work for so much grain, that kind of thing. So, I may as well be guided by convenience.


I assume that a Novice PC hero is roughly equivalent to a mercenary Man-At-Arms, who earned somewhere in the region of a silver shilling per day; ten times or more what the typical peasant labourer made. That gives me the following coinage; value in the mediaeval era seems to have been based on the equivalent weight of silver.

  • One penny, a day’s wages for a peasant, is roughly $1 and weighs a few grammes.
  • One silver shilling, a day’s wages for a mercenary footman or a Novice adventurer, is roughly $12. The shilling is an unwieldy coin, as it weighs nearly an ounce – somewhere around 20 to 30 grammes.
  • One gold or silver crown (5 shillings) is $60. This is where gold starts to appear in the coinage, as a silver crown would weigh about 4 ounces (100 grammes), but a gold crown would weigh a bit under an ounce, say 20 grammes.
  • One gold angel (a pound, 20 shillings) is $240. Even with the increased value of gold, it still weighs about an ounce.

The average starting wealth of $500 as thus roughly equal to 40 days’ wages or upkeep for an adventurer, whichever you prefer; call it two months’ worth to allow for holidays, sickness etc. Those with the Poverty hindrance need less for the same period ($250), those with the Noble or Rich edges need more ($1,500), and the Filthy Rich need even more than that ($2,500).


A typical NPC arcanist (wizard, priest, what have you) has 10 power points. He can expend these in under 30 seconds, but it takes him 10 hours to recharge; and with a d6 in his arcane skill and no Wild Die, he will fail half the time. Unless he wants to live in a state of permanent exhaustion, then, he has five productive power points per day, and they need to generate $10 of income; so he needs to charge at least $2 per power point. Want the Healing power cast on you? That’ll be $6, sir. No, I’m sorry, I haven’t got change for a sheep. Tell you what though, how about you spend next week doing my gardening for me instead?


In the core Rules As Written, you need someone with the Weird Science arcane background to make a device such as a magic sword (say, one imbued with Smite). I calculated in an earlier post that a sedentary NPC in Irongrave gains an advance every 18 months; that’s how often he can build a new magic item, as he needs to take the New Power Edge to do it. As I’ve capped Extra advancement at Veteran, he will build no more than a dozen items in his lifetime.

As a craftsman, your magic item maker probably earns 2-3 times the wages of a peasant labourer. 18 months of that is somewhere near 1,000 pennies, or about four pounds.

The device probably only has 10 power points, and you need to make a Weird Science ("Use Magic Item") roll to activate it, which for most characters will be at the default of 1d4-2, so there’s less than a 25% chance to turn it on. Masters of Weird Science are unlikely to teach you the skill. However, I shall rule that if you know the activation word (engraved on some items) or similar, you gain a +2 to the roll.


  • Mercenaries make a dozen times a peasant’s wage. (Adventurers are another kind of mercenaries; they do violence for money on behalf of rich people.)
  • If you can find a willing spellcaster, you can get a spell cast; it costs about a week’s wages for a peasant, but he might accept payment in labour or goods.
  • Coins are heavy. A pound of gold is about $4,000; a pound of silver is about $300.
  • Only the nobility can afford magic items. They’re not very reliable, though; in most cases you’re better off with a mundane item, or an actual spellcaster.

Review of Mandate Archive – the Qotah

This is the latest Mandate Archive – a series of free web supplements for the Stars Without Number RPG. Free to download, 7 pages long, this details an alien race for that game.

The Qotah are avian humanoids, driven by aggressive fury and honour. Their word, once given, is sacrosanct, but they prefer fighting as a means to achieve any goal.

The supplement covers the history, physiology and pscychology of the Qotah; their social structure and internal factions; how to generate a Qotah PC; a statblock for a typical Qotah warrior; tables for generating Qotah names and plot seeds; and a handful of capsule descriptions for Qotah NPCs. The supplement ends with a one-page player handout aimed at those who will play a Qotah.

Character generation is by the time-honoured method of modiiers on attributes. Unusually, these are not applied to the dice rolls themselves, but to the modifiers they generate. Thus, a Qotah PC has a -1 Strength modifier; suppose he rolled 15 for Strength, gaining a +1 bonus, his actual bonus on die rolls would be +1 -1 = 0.

Kevin Crawford and Sine Nomine Publishing continue to deliver the goods, packing a great deal of interesting background and rules into a very small page count. Every time I read one of these I want to drop my campaigns and start running his. So far I have resisted…