Review: Vornheim

Posted: 27 July 2011 in Reviews

“Any detail of the rules or setting left unexplained has been left that way because it’s not important to the character of the setting, and the GM should interpret it however s/he feels will distribute maximum fun.” – Zak S, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit

Vornheim is the city where Zak S runs the campaign he describes in the blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars and the web video series I Hit It With My Axe.

Vornheim – the Complete City Kit is the subject of this review; it’s a GM’s guide to running Vornheim, or any other fantasy city, on the fly. Where Ptolus attempts to document everything you would need as GM up front, and rely on you reading the necessary chapters before a session, Vornheim assumes you create the city as you go – once something has been determined, it is recorded, and stays that way from then on; but until it has been determined, no-one (including the GM) knows what it is.

In my current circumstances – busy job, family, commute etc. – the Vornheim approach suits me better.

What’s in the Book

  • A map of the area surrounding Vornheim in Zak’s baroque, and for me faintly disturbing, graphical style. There are capsule descriptions of other points of interest on the map; cities, undead trees (maybe), a battle endlessly frozen in time.
  • A gazetteer of some places in Vornheim. Note that the places are generally not critical to the city, so can be added and dropped as needed. Some places, like the Palace Massive, have labelled diagrams.
  • Oddities of the city. The gardens, slow pets (including flail snails), granary cats, bizarre festivals, snakes whose skins are books, unusual creatures, superstitions.
  • Detailed locations – i.e., mapped with keys and details of inhabitants. The House of the Medusa; the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng; the Library of Zorlac.
  • Commentaries on Vornheim from Zak’s regular players.
  • Diagram of a typical Vornheim tower. Most buildings in the city are improbably tall for a mediaeval setting.
  • The famous Urbancrawl rules, explaining how to generate city districts and building layouts on the fly.
  • The law and punishments in Vornheim. These interact with the superstitions to explain, for example, why humorous methods of execution are favoured.
  • Contacts – how many each PC knows, what sort of people they are and what they know.
  • Optional rules for chases, searching libraries and item costs.
  • Advice for the GM on open-ended city adventures.
  • God’s Chess – using chess or other games to generate campaign background. Zak suggests playing the game, but there are enough writeups of chess games available that one wouldn’t have to, unless one enjoys chess for its own sake as well.
  • Random tables. Lots and lots of random tables. They generate aristocrats, books, city NPCs (I was tempted to say “ordinary” or “normal”, but neither is really true), shopkeepers, relationships between NPCs, encounters in the city, fortunes told to the PCs, things found when PCs search bodies, legal situations, unexpected magical effects, taverns, common buildings and encounter hooks therein. The author recommends that when one entry is used, it is crossed off, and replaced by a new one.
  • A table for converting statblocks between different editions of D&D
  • Charts for determining things at random by rolling dice actually on the chart – the end position of the die is read off against marks on the edges.
  • Recommended reading – works chosen in Zak’s usual eclectic style.


Zak’s imagination is like Mervyn Peake on LSD, and he always has new angles on things, ones worth reading even if I usually don’t adopt many of them. He relies heavily on random tables (fair enough) and sometimes on physically throwing dice on a chart.

My favourite parts are…

  • The Urbancrawl rules
  • The superstitions
  • Snakes as books
  1. says:

    Vornheim: “baroque, and … faintly disturbing”

    It’s a great book, and really good in play too. There’s a stupid amount of quality content in there.

  2. Zak S says:

    It’s fun to realize the same Andy Slack that wrote for the White Dwarfs that inspired me when I was a kid is now reading (and using?) my book. That’s cool. I love this hobby.

    • andyslack says:

      “Now, I am the student, and you, the Master!”

      Gotta love this hobby!

      I’ve been following Playing D&D With Pornstars for a while now, and yes, I do use the Vornheim City Kit.

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