Review: Parsantium, etc

Posted: 22 July 2017 in Reviews
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“I was born here in the city
With my back against the wall
Nothing grows, and life ain’t very pretty
No one’s there to catch you when you fall”
– The Eagles, In the City

In a nutshell: Parsantium is a city sourcebook that works with any version of D&D, 178 pages. Icons of Parsantium is a collection of 15 movers and shakers that dominate the city and the surrounding lands, 47 pages. Whispers of the Dark Daeva is a 42-page adventure for 1st level PCs. All written by Richard Green and published by Ondine Publishing. Roughly £15, £4 and £4 respectively at time of writing.

PARSANTIUM, CITY AT THE CROSSROADS

As the author explains in the introduction, Parsantium grew out of a desire to merge a great fantasy city with exotic cultures and use that for his home game. The result is essentially Byzantium around the turn of the first millennium, but in a world where India got nudged a bit closer to the mediterranean for convenient access to its culture and monsters.

Once past the introduction and the city map, you get an overview of the city (history, character races and backgrounds – 16 pages), and chapters on life in the city (politics, law, customs – 18 pages), running a campaign (themes, facilities, features – 10 pages), a gazetteer (places, people and plot hooks for each of the 11 wards plus comments on the underworld below the city and nearby regions outside – 70 pages), organisations both overt and covert (24 pages), religions derived from the Graeco-Roman, Indian, Arabic and Chinese cultural analogues which inhabit Parsantium (15 pages), and an index.

The map is a delight, and the timeline covers 2,000 years of history in overview. The city’s internal politics are appropriately Byzantine. Most of the key NPCs seem to be about 14th or 15th level, lesser ones averaging about 5th level, and they have no detailed stats – just a notation of alignment, class and level, which personally I much prefer to full statblocks. Each ward has a number of passersby to encounter as well as the traditional shops, temples and so forth, each with a paragraph of detail. A welcome touch is the inclusion for each ward of the PCs’ first impressions on entering it.

On the downside, I prefer to have my fantasy races separated into their own tidy little kingdoms, Tolkien style, not thrown into a blender a la Eberron. Parsantium is human-dominated, but you also have minotaurs, dragonborn, centaurs, tieflings, vanara (intelligent monkey people), gnolls, half-everythings, and whatnot. For me, this Star Wars cantina approach degrades the sense of wonder – when everything is fantastic, nothing is fantastic. Halfling gypsies camped outside the walls don’t do it for me either, I’m afraid. And it’s got gnomes in it. I hate gnomes. So I will probably tone down the number of humanoids and emphasise the different human cultures.

The character backgrounds and city statistics are clearly aimed at Pathfinder, but that’s very little of the book, maybe 6 pages total. The rest of it would work with any edition of D&D I’m familiar with, and it would take very little effort to reskin it for other fantasy RPGs.

The law and order section includes a list of crimes and their punishments, as well as notes on the largely corrupt city watch. The customs and culture chapter includes food, drink, clothing, the calendar, festivals, entertainment, superstitions etc. Now this in particular is a difficult row to hoe; a sourcebook must have enough of these to establish the setting’s culture as different and interesting, but not so many that it is hard work to memorise them before the game.

The chapter on running a campaign offers five main options; running with the criminal gangs (Grand Theft Donkey – Parsantium), uncovering the secrets of the older city on which Parsantium is built (dungeon crawling), political intrigue, fighting as gladiators in the arena, and the return of an ancient evil. No reason not to mix and match, of course. There are also random events to shake things up.

ICONS OF PARSANTIUM

Here are 15 major NPCs written up 13th Age style, faction leaders with whom the PCs can have some sort of connection. Some are individuals, others are organisations; some live in or near Parsantium, and others are distant. You don’t have to use them all, and in fact my (admittedly limited) experience of icons in general is that focussing on a few of them gives you a better game.

Each icon has a quotation, a usual location, a paragraph of common knowledge (what everyone knows about them), missions they might send adventurers on, minions at their command, allies and enemies, a little of their history and one real danger that they could unwittingly unleash (these make good plotlines).

There are also two playable races for 13th Age, gnolls and vanara, presented as sidebars.

There are separate sections of example relationship dice outcomes for each icon (nice touch that, this was something my group and I had trouble with when using 13th Age icons), and the secret, GM-only information on each icon. This means you can use the main icon writeups as handouts if you wish, while retaining some mysteries for the PCs to work out for themselves.

WHISPERS OF THE DARK DAEVA

Here’s an adventure in four parts, in which the PCs are engaged to solve a series of puzzling murders in the Dock Ward of the Old Quarter.

Drawn in at first by witnessing one of the murders, the PCs do some investigatory legwork and (naturally) visit the local pub before heading into the villain’s hideout to sort them out. The longer they take to do this, the more murders occur around them, and the more murders, the worse things get for them – this forms a sort of ticking bomb in the scenario, and once they work out what is going on, it adds time pressure to their activities.

A sidebar explains which Icons are likely to be involved and how, should you be using the Icons. Finally, outcomes are provided explaining what happens if the PCs succeed – or if they fail.

FORMAT

Colour covers, full-colour city map, minimal internal illustrations including the odd dungeon map, two-column black text on white. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.

There’s also a blog by the author here, focused on the setting’s development.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like more detail on the Hidden Quarter please; perhaps a side-on diagram on how the various levels fit together (I’ll probably knock one of those up myself to help me understand it at some point) and some more location maps for places of interest and mystery.

CONCLUSIONS

A fantasy version of mediaeval Byzantium is something I’ve often toyed with as a setting, and Parsantium absolves me of the need to do any heavy lifting for it. These products come across as a labour of love by someone with a deep knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire of the 10th to 11th century, and cultures less frequently seen in fantasy gaming.

In terms of the product interactions, Icons needs Parsantium but not vice versa, and Whispers could stand alone, but would be a good introductory adventure for a Parsantium campaign.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is the best contender for my planned D&D 5E city game, currently in development, but it needs some tweaking. If nothing else, those wretched gnomes have got to go…

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Comments
  1. I respect your view that non humans should be separate and alien, but I am of the counter-view, since humanoids in fantasy are actually analogues for human cultures in our own, the Star Wars cantina is exactly what I want. The kaleidoscope of variety in the City Of Gull in T&T, or in the ROME of the recent(ish) TV series, is what I want to show. I am at the end of the day a citizen of the world, an urban cosmopolite, a person of ‘everywhere’ that creates a new but transient ‘somewhere’, so this sounds like a cracking product for me.. thanks Andy.

    • andyslack says:

      To each his own, and it is certainly a fine product, either way. I guess I like nonhumans to serve a narrative or dramatic purpose, rather than be there just because they’re in the rulebook; it often feels to me as if authors have a quota to fill – “Oh no, I haven’t used halflings yet, I have to make the next innkeeper a halfling!” I suppose that’s true to an extent, all the playable races need a presence to explain why the locals are used to them being around.

      Nomadic gnoll barbarians outside the walls of Parsantium intrigue me, so they can stay. 🙂

      I can’t explain why I hate gnomes so much, and I accept that this is irrational; but there it is.

      • richgreen01 says:

        I kind of know what you mean about gnomes. The only PC gnomes in our games have been annoying ones like my friend Rob’s bard, Scaramouche Fandango. The name says it all. I came up with the Brotherhood of Spite in an attempt to do something a bit more interesting with them.

  2. richgreen01 says:

    Thanks very much for the review – glad you enjoyed Parsantium. If you do end up running a campaign, I’d love to hear about it!

    • andyslack says:

      You’er welcome, it’s good work. I fancy using it later in the year, I will certainly post about it if I do.

      • richgreen01 says:

        Great! It’s nice to get my stuff reviewed by someone whose WD reviews I read back in the day BTW 🙂

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