Review of Ptolus

Posted: 29 June 2011 in Reviews

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.

FOREWORD AND INTRODUCTION

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.

PART 1: PLAYERS’ HANDBOOK

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.

PART 2: BACKGROUND

  • 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.

PART 3: CITY GUIDE

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.

PART 4: BELOW THE CITY

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.

PART 5: ABOVE THE CITY

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.

PART 6: LIVING IN PTOLUS

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.

PART 7: RUNNING A PTOLUS CAMPAIGN

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.

THE GOOD, THE  BAD, AND THE UGLY

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.

SUMMARY

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.

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