set up shop in The City.
"This ought to be good."
"Grim & Gritty" is the first two words in this book, & you can tell that is really what Ben McFarland shot for. He owns up to his influences-- Zobek is Lankhmar, is New Crobuzon, is Casablanca. It ain't Sigil, but you can see it from here. It is home to more scoundrels & ruffians than you can shake a stick at, by its very nature. A wretched hive of scum & villainy & all that jazz. We're still safely high fantasy, here-- colleges of wizards & clockwork soldiers-- but we're down in the gutters. Streets of Zobek isn't worldbuilding by narrative-- the Clockwork City has been expounded on in Kobold Quarterly & The Zobek Gazateer if you are so inclined-- but rather consists of bundled resources. Adventures, mostly, but NPCs, locations & feats too. Alleys of Zobek is an online enhancement, so to speak-- sort of the DVD extras, or clips from the cutting room floor. It is more of the same, in other words-- adventures, hooks, items, dramatis personae & the like, with the added bonus of a Lust domain. Like Northlands, this is part of the Midgard campaign setting-- a nice big overworld with increasing diversity in culture & tone.
It starts off with the NPCs-- now, I generally don't need a cast of characters, but there are some clever bits here, particularly the "Schemes & Plots" section in the template. A few hooks provide an NPC with vastly more potential-- miniquests abound. There is a sluagh, which flashes me back to my Changleling: The Dreaming days. There is a ghoul fixer, which reminds me of the ghoul street doc in my Shadowrun game. Gritty fantasy on the streets? I shouldn't be surprised that it reminds me of Shadowrun. Then onto locations & hey; tossing in terms like "alchemically treated glass" make things so much better than more banal high magic deus ex machina; that is a good use of storytelling there. It is the little details that make the whole come together-- like all the detail Weta put into The Lord of the Rings that we never see up close. The pattern recognition software of the brain catches it! The botanical rooftop garden? I've used that in my urban Oubliette campaign to good effect as well; kudos to Matt Stinson for coming up with the same notion. & public baths; that is a brilliant idea that I've used a few times, in several different campaigns. I'm serious when I say "great minds think alike," you know? There are even rules for running your own bar!
Then come the adventures. I'm not a pre-published adventure kind of guy-- the only one I've tried to run that I can think of are the matched pair of Shadowrun mega-modules Harlequin & Harlequin's Back. I really like harlequins; if you don't know that about me, you ought to have been able to guess. The adventures her could be slotted into most urban settings; strip out Zobek & replace it with the metropolis of your choice. Eberron in particular might really click with the material provided. Again, there are little tidbits that catch the eye; vignettes & set pieces like the animated slaughterhouse, characters like Mister Corpulent & Mister Doldrum, surprises like lots of derro. Derro, I heart 'em. There is also plenty of clockwork Frankensteinia in a couple of different adventures, which puts me in mind of Curie Firstlight in my current Oubliette campaign. I might just get some devilish ideas...& there are a few adventures that I can almost see Players linking together themselves. "Hey, that severed head might be really useful with the headless body we found..." Glen Zimmerman's art really shows off the story to good effect, here-- the devil soaking in the hot bath with the tattooed woman is particularly nice.
I have to question some of the feats-- maybe I'm spoiled by Sigfried Trent's Advanced Feats series, but there are a few overpowered & underpowered showings, here. In particular, "Diplomatic Strike" is a tricky one-- a feat that lets you deal non-lethal damage with no penalty? I know The Book of Exalted Deeds had something similar, but I didn't like it then, either. Makes too many ethical questions disappear in a poof of "I bop him on his head. There, unconscious." & Heavy Hitter lets you do double damage with a weapon that deals non-lethal? Having played with a character who took advantage of non-lethal combat, I can tell you that will backfire on you. On the flipside, "Crippling Blow" isn't useful enough-- you have to have knocked someone out twice in one day? How often is that going to come up? There are plenty of of solid decent feats-- "Urban Spell" is cute & "A Firm Word" is promising as well. I also liked the feats "Sling Anything" & "Diluted Brewing" (that'll show those cheapskate Players!) but they are scattered in the NPC section, Traits & spells are...well, traits & spells, but the Magic Items really made me realize how badly Fourth Edition has screwed up with loot. There aren't boring old pluses with a minor rider effect; instead there are clever gimmick items like "Bag of Traps" & "The Cloak of the Inconspicuous" that really drive home how fun treasure can be.