What Do I Know About Reviews? Zobeck Gazetteer (5th Edition)(5th Edition OGL Compatible)
When the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons ended, one of the things that went along with it was a print version of Dragon Magazine. I had been reading Dragon Magazine almost from the time I first got into Dungeons and Dragons and loved the random articles that sparked my imagination on topics I would not otherwise have pondered.
One of the things that I took solace in, when the print version of Dragon went away, was Kobold Quarterly. It was a quarterly (well, yeah) magazine highlighting all kinds of fantasy articles. While those articles often had statistics from a variety of fantasy RPG game systems, the setting that started to emerge in many articles is the setting now published by Kobold Press as Midgard, and the city of Zobeck was referenced several times.
Even though I just recently started running my 5e D&D games in Midgard, I’ve been a fan for years. I’ve got supplements for Fantasy AGE, 13th Age, Pathfinder, Swords and Wizardry, and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve always loved fantasy cities. I had the old AD&D Lankhmar supplements, thousands of pages of information on Waterdeep, and while it wasn’t my usual setting to use, I even loved the City of Greyhawk boxed set from 2nd edition AD&D. It is probably not much of a surprise that I jumped on the Zobeck Gazetteer for 5th Edition when it was announced (plus, you know, my current campaign is set in Zobeck).
Geography of the City (Book)
This review is based both on the physical book and the PDF. The book is about 148 pages in length, with required OGL page and a two-page index at the end. The book is full color, with full-color art throughout. Some art has been reused from previous Midgard books, but much of it (to the best of my knowledge) is brand new to this book.
The art is all attractive and top tier for the RPG industry. The formatting retains the distinctive borders that Kobold Press products have had for some time now, and there are numerous sidebars and tables summarizing things like adventure hooks, available gear, and the laws of the city and the punishments for breaking them. The physical product also has a glossy pull out map of the city.
What is Zobeck and A History
This section of the book introduces the city and touches on a few points that make the city unique, and then dives into the history of the city in the setting of Midgard. There is also a brief sidebar on adapting Zobeck to other campaign settings, but it amounts to just dropping it in where a trade hub would make sense.
The biggest concepts native to Zobeck are the fall of the nobility, the kobold underclass, and the continued neutrality of the city despite pressures from various forces around it. For anyone unfamiliar with the setting, this section summarizes the former Stross family’s ties with devils and the shadow fey, the revolt of the commoners, and the pivotal role that the kobold slaves played in that revolt.
For anyone familiar with previous material on Zobeck, the timeline advances about 10 years, with the formation of the Agentine Alliance with Magdar and Grisel against the Mharoti Empire to the south and Morgau to the north (nations backed by dragons and vampires, respectively).
The Free City of Zobeck
This section of the book details districts, cultures, lifestyles, festivals, religion, the military, government, crime and punishment, gangs, and the city’s neighbors. Humans, dwarves, kobolds, and gearforged make up most of the people in Zobeck, although as a crossroads city, just about any of the ancestries found in the setting can be found here, somewhere.
There are lots of NPCs mentioned in this section in conjunction with various factions or aspects of the government, usually given “short form” stat blocks (alignment, species, class). The Lord Mayor and the Consuls are mentioned, and many of them have their own side plots or alliances that affect the city.
Some of the elements of this section that are highlights for me are:
- Local holidays (especially the Kobold Holiday of “We No Work Day”)
- Adventures hooks (at the end of several of the subsections of this chapter)
- Doing Time in the Clockwork City (various crimes and their punishments, always good to have on hand for city-based campaigns)
- Trade with the Shadow Fey is mentioned, as is the unease that many in the city, including the Lord Mayor, have with reopening diplomatic channels with a supernatural element that once supported the Stross family before the revolt.
The Kobold Ghetto
In previous products, it has been introduced that the kobolds have short-lived kings all over the Kobold Ghetto, all answering to the King of Kings. Instead of assuming there is an ever-shifting crew of these kings that aren’t worth mentioning, this section gives a list of the current lesser kings, and it paints a nice cross-section of what kobolds are in this setting.
The lesser kings range from criminals, to religious idealists trying to make kobold and other beings lives better, to kobolds just trying to do right by their neighborhood, to undead abominations that at least help keep the kobold safe.
The section on the undercity and trade ways with a kobold city outside of Zobeck make it clear that the kobolds, while badly treated and underappreciated, aren’t quite as hapless as they may seem on the surface.
While the Cartways extend under the rest of Zobeck as well, they are mentioned here as the kobolds have access to the undercity more freely than citizens of the rest of the neighborhoods. The Cartways are partially used as a sewer, but also contain many underground passages leading to the various districts, used by the nobles in ages past. It currently has a very specific Black Market, as well as potential sub-dungeons and secret shrines all over the place.
This section of the book contains a few adventure hook sidebars, as well, mainly focused on things like smuggling, entrances to the Cartways, and political maneuvering between the kobold kings. There are also some humorously detailed traps that the kobolds use to protect their secret entrances detailed as well.
Districts and Locations
This section goes into a more detailed listing of various locations on the map, detailing things like important family homes, government buildings, temples, and taverns. There is also a chart detailing the cost of owning or renting property in the various districts of the city.
As in the previous sections, the various districts have their own adventure hooks listed at the end of their sections, and some locations that lie a day or so outside of the city and are important to the history or current functioning of the city are detailed as well, although only so far as to explain what they are and why they are important. For example, the former Stross stronghold and current mega-dungeon Castle Shadowcrag is given a single paragraph to put its location and status in context.
Guilds, Gangs, & Guardians
The next chapter in the book details the various power groups active in the city. If you are like me, this is the kind of thing that gets you excited about city campaigns. Geography is all well and good, but if there are a few forces to drop missions for the PCs, and a few others to complicate or oppose those missions, then you might as well just be passing through the city rather than adventure there.
The literal guilds are detailed, with locations given for their headquarters. In addition to these more legitimate organizations, various criminal groups are detailed as well, with a format that details the following:
- Suspected Headquarters
There are also sections detailing lesser gangs (groups that don’t get the full write-up detailed above), Courtesans, Courtiers, and The Winter Court’s Ambassadors. These don’t detail specific NPCs, but rather detail how these organizations affect Zobeck overall.
This section of the book probably has some of the trickiest content for me. The Kariv are presented as a people, but also a “gang,” and that Kariv-as-Gang leans heavily on real-world Romani stereotypes.
The Courtesans and Courtiers section introduces some gender-specific implications that may not be comfortable for players at your table, as well. Essentially, courtesans are attractive young women that attempt to find male “patrons,” and the salons that encourage art and theater in the city are patronized and directed, traditionally, by the women of wealth families. It may be easy enough to drift this concept into something less dependent on rigid gender roles, but as presented, it leans heavily on outdated assumptions of society.
Gods, Cults, & Relics of Zobeck
This section of the book details the gods that have the most influence over the city of Zobeck, as well as introducing various religious relic magic items, and introducing the concept of crab divining. While many of the entries detail gods already touched upon in the larger Midgard Worldbook, the details given in this book are specific to how the god is perceived in Zobeck, and how they are worshiped in the city.
Like the Worldbook entries, the gods aren’t assigned specific alignments, although the “What X Demands” sections may make the god palatable to greater society. Additionally, some gods are specifically called out as having faiths that are illegal to practice in Zobeck.
Rava’s entry provides some fun details for GMs running a game in Zobeck, because her temple houses the Clockwork Oracle, a machine that can provide answers to questions every 60 days or so. In addition to important people petitioning to get the honor of asking questions of the Oracle, it can spit out prophesies that call for specific people to do specific things for the good of the city—a strong hook to use to get PCs involved in a larger plot.
In addition to the major gods that are already touched upon in the Midgard Worldbook, there are a few saints and lesser, regional gods introduced in this section as well. This includes a few shrines where these local gods are revered.
Crab divining as a very flavorful subsection in this chapter, explaining how the diviner communicates with the crab, sacrifices it, and how its remains can be read. There are some fun substitutions for what can be used instead of the crab, and what ramifications those substitutions have. The biggest issue is that this section also dovetails a bit with the Kariv/Romani stereotype problem mentioned in the previous section with the Kariv gangs.
There are various magical relics detailed in this section, all belonging to gods that have local significance. Given the overall “steampunk, but Eastern European” vibe of Zobeck, one of my favorites was the Clockwork Mummy of St. Heviticus, the body of a dwarf follower of Rava that left instructions on how to mummify his remains, which included adding in a bunch of gears and pistons. He can now help develop technical plans or produce spell scrolls from the Clockwork school of magic.
Denizens of Zobeck
This section provides a deeper dive into several NPCs that might directly encounter adventurers in the city, and instead of just giving a short form version of these NPCs, they have full stat blocks.
The NPCs detailed include:
- The Dragged Woman (a ghost that leads adventurers to lost places)
- Dame Teragram (a gearfored military woman with a team kobolds and dwarves)
- Goldscale (a kobold paladin adventurer)
- Jayzel (cultist and assistant to Nariss Larigorn)
- Mother Rye (Kariv crab diviner)
- Nariss Larigorn (cult leader and business owner)
- Orlando (guildmaster, wizard, and city councilman)
- Peppercorn (bodyguard to the Mouse King)
- Radu Underhill (Cartways Black Market contact)
- Sergeant Hendryk (corrupt watchman)
- Scaler (luking surprise in the Kobold Ghetto)
- Slinger (friend of Scaler)
- Syssysalai (hidden threat to the Kobold Ghetto)
- The Mouse King (King of all mice and rats, and also into the politics of Zobeck)
- Tymon, the King’s Bard (agent of the Mouse King, kind of)
- Tyron, King of Fixers (business owner and criminal contact)
I can definitely see why these specific NPCs are more likely to have contact with PCs, although I’m still not sure they all need full stat blocks. I particularly love the Dragged Woman, as kind of a force of nature that can just reveal hidden locations to adventurers.
There is a bit of repeated text in a few of the NPC entries. Some of them were introduced adjunct to organizations or locations elsewhere in the book, and some of the text from their entries previously are ported into their personal entries. I don’t mind the redundancy, but I know some notice when the same entries are reused within the same product, even when it makes sense for it to be repeated.
There is a product called Streets of Zobeck that also utilizes some of these NPCs in various short adventures tied to locations in the city. If those NPCs are featured in that product, it is noted in their entries.
Magic of Zobeck
This chapter details the arcane school of Clockwork magic for wizards, lists a whole lot of clockwork spells, details a magic shop in the Kobold Ghetto, and introduces some magic items native to, or associated with, the city.
The Clockwork School for wizards introduces abilities like being able to shape metal, turn into a golem, and having a clockwork familiar. The spells introduced deal with using metal, steam, or gears as weapons, shape-changing into constructs, manipulating time, and even using infernal fiends as the motivating forces for constructs instead of things like elementals.
The magic shop introduced is meant to be a quirky place that sells mundane items of limited power, and this section also establishes that the Arcane Collegium, the local wizard’s school, frowns on establish magic shops, but may allow its members to take on custom commissions for creating magic items.
Many of the new items introduced have a theme of alchemy or clockwork, although there are a few items of local significance that don’t carry this theme, such as the magical signet ring of a kobold king, or the magical staffs that some watch officers carry that do extra damage to a target when the staff has an official warrant affixed to it.
Heroes of Zobeck
This section of the book includes backgrounds that are tied to Zobeck and its lore, special mounts found in and around the city, and feats for gearforged and human characters.
- Blessed of Ninkash
- Kobold King
I love how all of these are tied to themes from the city. None of them have groundbreaking mechanics, but the specific collection of traits and features reinforce themes in a Zobeck campaign, and I really wish that we had seen more of that “backgrounds as communicating setting elements” come up in WOTC D&D products. Even the backgrounds in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide felt less specific and useful for communicating setting elements than they could have been.
I particularly like that the politician gets an income that pays for a nice house, but doesn’t get any extra funds, per se, so they still have a reason to adventure. The courtesan has a few “on the nose” overly stereotypical traits given the profession, but I like the idea of an adventurer that is also trying to balance a career as a courtesan.
Mounts detailed in this section include:
- Clockwork Warhorse
- Giant Fey Owl
- War Wyvern
There is also a sidebar on the famous griffons used by the Order of Griffon Knights. I like all of the mounts introduced, but oddly, a broad price is given for “flying mounts,” but not for the specific mounts included in this section, and the clockwork warhorse doesn’t fall under that category regardless. If these are only awarded but never purchased, that’s cool, I just wish that was explicitly spelled out in the entries.
Of the new racial feats, the gearforged feats play with a new concept for that race. Previously, all gearforged were humanoid creatures who transferred their minds into a new body. This book introduces the idea that there are a growing number of gearforged that are animated by elemental spirits. For gearforged that are animated by elemental spirits, the new racial feats allow them to start tapping into those elemental powers over time.
The human options all deal with specific groups of humans and must be taken at 1st level. They give extra flavor to Kariv nomads, Septime city natives, northlanders, wanderers from the Wasted West, people that have been to the fey crossroads, and humans native to Zobeck.
I’m already running a game in Zobeck, and this one wants me to run another one. The locations, personalities, and factions in the city make the city feel vital and unique, and the plot hooks sprinkled throughout guide you on your way to knowing how to use the book at the table. The book itself is gorgeous and cleans up some setting lore that I had either misunderstood or that was contradictory across all of the various products for various games that have covered the setting over the years.
Just from the standpoint of creating clear locations, NPCs, factions, and plot hooks, Zobeck is a city book to use as a blueprint for other city-based RPG projects.
The information on the Kariv, as well as some of the material dealing with gender roles, are going to be elements that someone has to think about when they present this material at their tables. There are a few places where I wish the rules were just a bit clearer, like the cost of the new mounts, as an example, or providing more guidance on what commissioning a magic item from the Collegium looks like.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you like the Midgard setting, or just want to see how a fantasy city supplement can be structured, this will likely be a good purchase for you. If you like Midgard and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, this is even harder to resist.
Despite all the strong elements going for this, I do think it is always important to think carefully about potentially troubling elements introduced into a setting, and to be very careful to not brush aside concerns about them or to treat them in a less than serious manner.