A city is a hard place, a lean place full of lean men and women all looking for the next big score, or maybe just the next meal. Open Design’s Streets of Zobeck by Ben McFarland provides a perfect passage to a gritty urban fantasy setting for the Pathfinder RPG system.
Fantasy fans often divide the genre further into “high fantasy” (think Tolkien, epic quests and heroic deeds) and “sword and sorcery” (think Conan, brutal warriors and grey morality). Sword and sorcery was popular in the pulp era, and has been enjoying a resurgence in the last decade or so. The “S&S” moniker seems to have fallen out of fashion, though, in favor of the more specific descriptor: “grim and gritty.” If grim and gritty is what you want, grim and gritty is what Streets of Zobeck will give you.
Zobeck is a specific city within Wolfgang Baur’s Midgard campaign world, and information in this book builds off of info created for Midgard and Kobold Quarterly magazine. It stands well on its own, however, with the characters and adventures not closely tied to the rest of the campaign world. If you need a hard-bitten, life-is-tough-on-the-streets kind of city in your campaign world, Zobeck is pretty much plug and play.
Actually, I’d go so far as to say that any Pathfinder campaign that spends a lot of time in urban environs needs this book. The characters, locales and adventure hooks are all designed to give a gritty verisimilitude to a fantasy city. There aren’t really good guys and bad guys, just a bunch of shady characters, every one of them on the make. It’s a lot like film noir if film noir had ghouls and death cults.
You get an even dozen NPCs to interact with, make backroom deals with, double-cross and stab in the back (or front). There are six locales presented in rich detail, with adventure hooks and maps. Your characters can grab some new feats, traits, spells and equipment suited to city life. On top of all that, there are seven full adventures set within Zobeck. The PCs might be hired to carry out a heist, destroy some bizarre possessed automatons, or have to track down a woman who created her own web of double and triple crosses and is now fleeing from just about every faction in the city. You don’t have to be satisfied with adventuring in the city — this book offers some rules and hooks for becoming a part of it by owning your own tavern or brothel. Here’s where I should mention that this book deals frankly with violence, drugs and sex, so maybe don’t bring this to the after school D&D club (or at least, don’t let the principal see it).
While all the crunch in Streets of Zobeck is highly useful, my favorite part is simply the writing itself. McFarland (and the authors who wrote the adventures) really nailed the sparse, straightforward style of gritty detective fiction, applying it to a fantasy setting. From the NPC bios to the adventure read-alouds, the text is a pleasure to read. This book is another one in the win column for Open Design.