What Do I Know About Reviews? City of Cats (5e OGL)
The first campaign I ran in the Forgotten Realms was set in Waterdeep, after reading FR1 Waterdeep and the North. Before I even had a chance to read any of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, the D&D supplement detailing Lankhmar let me know I had to explore Nehwon. The Roman-esque, minotaur-ruled city of Kristophan was one of my favorite aspects of the Time of the Dragon boxed set, introducing Taladas. While D&D had a detailed cosmology for years, learning about the quirks of the City of Sigil transitioned the outer planes from a location you could visit, to the heart of a campaign setting.
More recently, reading about the city of Zobeck in Kobold Quarterly made me want to know more about the Midgard setting. A rebellion against the nobility, kobold workers, and a rising trend towards clock punk technology, in a world that otherwise features strong elements of Eastern European folklore, seized my attention.
Some settings have multiple regions that end up being their own subsection of the campaign. For example, when reading about the Lands of Intrigue in the Forgotten Realms, Calimport ends up recalibrating the “city at the center of the world” from Waterdeep to Calimshan’s capital. In a similar manner, the Southlands of the Midgard Campaign setting has its own focal city, like Zobeck to the north. In this case, Per-Bastet, the City of Cats.
What Is It About A City?
The best fantasy cities have their own personality. There are quirks and special rules that make that city stand out from other locations. From an RPG standpoint, different districts with distinct features allow for significant portions of the campaign to take place within the city proper, while still providing continuity of location.
Beyond having distinct districts with their own themes, fantasy cities having their own factions and rules are important. Knowing who rules the city tells you something about that city. Is it a council of wizards, merchants, or guildmasters? Knowing who enforces the rules tells you who the adventurers are likely to encounter. Are the local gangs in charge in some of the districts? Is there a difference between the Guard and the Watch? Do noble house guards have any enforcement credentials?
The more a city setting can answer these questions with exciting and distinctive answers, the more that city is going to stand out as a location to have adventures. With all of that in mind, let’s look at City of Cats, one of the products produced from Kobold Press’ Southlands Worldbook Kickstarter.
There are some setting elements and some recurring elements that should be discussed up front. Slavery is an aspect of the setting. While it’s not portrayed as a good thing, and there are several NPCs presented that are working against the practice, the city itself incorporates it into the law. From a setting standpoint, much of the slavery comes from the conflict between the people of Per-Bastet and the Mharoti Empire, meaning that kobolds and dragonborn face racism and marginalization as well. Because both ghouls and gnolls are present in the city, there is recurring discussion of eating sapient humanoids.
The Book of Cats
This review is based on the PDF of the product. This is 154 pages long, and this includes a credits page, a two-page table of contents, three pages of ads for other Kobold Press products, and a full-page OGL statement.
If you have seen any other Kobold Press product, you probably know what the formatting looks like in this book. In this case, the color scheme leans a little more to light tan and gold, rather than the colors used in other books. This has some gorgeous full-color artwork, as well as numerous headers, subheaders, and sidebars, all in a two-column layout.
Per-Bastet, The City of Cats
The first section of this book details the history of Per-Bastet, its climate and geographic location, its political structure, and the various districts of the city. The subsections that appear in this section include the following:
- District of the Cat
- Guard District
- District of the Hyena
- Lioness District
- Monument District
- Palace District
- Perfume District
- The Hunt
- Wharf District
Right off the bat, I appreciate this being broken up into various districts. I want to know what makes up this city, and what it looks like if you start in one district, versus another district. In addition to the districts, we get a summary of the ruling personalities, including a priestess of Bastet, goddess of cats, an undead Queen-Goddess, and a prince slowly losing his grasp of reality due to various visions granted to him regarding the fate of the city.
Per-Bastet is a city that has wonder, whimsy, and grim schemes, as well as growing shadows. Depending on your preferences, you may not think of cats as being a particularly sinister theme for a city, but there is a lot more going on beyond the ubiquitous cats. The city itself sometimes reaches out and calls those that live within it, urging them to do a service for the city itself. Some residents of the city that die while focused on their love of the city may come back as The Dead, unliving servants of the city who almost never speak, and forget much of what they were when they were alive.
In addition to humans, the city has thousands of basteti (catfolk), dwarves, gnolls, ghouls, as well as a sizable population of enslaved kobolds and dragonborn from the Mharoti Empire. Those residents that come back as The Dead aren’t feared by most residents, as The Dead are devoted to the service of the city and regarded as a sign of the city’s greatness, to inspire such devotion beyond life.
While many cities have sewers and undercities, the undercity of Per-Bastet includes the River of Sand, winding through the crumbling subterranean structures of ages past. In the District of the Cat, Catslide Alleys sometimes appear, with portals to other places, which can only be accessed by someone accompanied by a cat. The Hunt is a district that fell into ruin, and is now haunted by various monsters, and used for contests or as a literal hunting ground by some of the more dangerous inhabitants of the city.
Since the District of the Hyena is largely the gnoll district, we get a lot of details on gnoll society. We learn about their matriarchal structure, the fact that well-off gnolls employ expensive chefs to make over-the-top meals, and that gnolls participate in games and gambling as part of their desire to move ahead in social standing. Not only do they participate in games, but they are prone to participate in potentially dangerous stunts to win these games.
There are a few places where gnolls feel like they have a sinister bent, which can often be a problem with sentient humanoids. In this case, it’s less because of the “born evil” problem, and more of a function of mapping assumed traits of hyenas to humanoid creatures. Regardless, I love having this level of societal detail for gnolls, either to play into or play against. There are several examples both of malevolent and benevolent gnoll citizens in the book.
This section has a series of modifications of the Status rules presented in the Midgard Worldbook, tailored to campaigns in Per-Bastet. Each of the districts also has random lists of events going on in that district. This is less of an encounter table and more of a resource for setting the scene, as the PCs travel through the streets. Each section also ends with a section on what kinds of adventures can be found in the various districts, with adventure hooks as well.
Adventures in Per-Bastet
The Adventures in Per-Bastet section includes some previously published adventures, pulled together to form a mini opening campaign for characters in Per-Bastet. The adventures include:
- Cat and Mouse
- Three Little Pigs
Cat and Mouse and Grimalkin have the strongest ties to one another, as they both revolve around the same lost location, the relics that can be found there, and the secret, heretical order of Bastet worshippers tied to this location. This heretical order is a nice addition to the city’s lore even if the GM isn’t going to use these adventures.
Cat and Mouse and Grimalkin both involve multiple factions looking for the same things, with the player characters being caught between two or three opposing factions during the adventure. The player characters usually start off being contacted by one potential employer, with the option of seeing the adventure through in their employ, or joining with another faction, or perhaps burning some bridges for the promise of treasure.
The bridging adventure, Three Little Pigs, is a “right place at the right time” story where the adventurers are asked to track down various people accidentally falling under a curse and put in three separate bad positions in different places in the city. After rescuing these cursed individuals, the PCs must help ensure that the curse can be reversed.These adventures do what I appreciate in an adventure included in a sourcebook. These aren’t just adventures that use proper nouns from the setting, but also introduce people, factions, and cultural elements unique to this setting. The biggest thing that strikes me as strange is that the first and third adventures spend a lot of time pondering the PCs turning on their employers, without any real provocation from the employer. Must have been some hard mercenary choices in the playtesting phase.
Appendix: Monsters and NPCs
Initially, I thought this section was mainly going to detail monsters or NPCs that had either been referenced in the city districts or that appeared in the adventures in the book. Instead, there are also a few NPCs that were not previously mentioned that also make for their own story hooks in Per-Bastet campaigns.
There is a table that mentions where NPCs have appeared elsewhere in the book to put them in context. There are also NPCs driven to ruin by the city’s call, a “cyborg” gnoll potentially waiting for friendship or redemption, a cursed assassin, and an outlander that has come to the city to lay waste to The Dead, regardless of their positive reputation within the city. There is even a form of undead that represents a vampiric experiment used to expand their influence in the city.
Even without using the included adventures, this section adds several more adventure hooks to the overall well of ideas generated by the city.
This city ticks all my boxes for a fantasy city. It’s both sinister and inviting, it has distinctive locations, and weird supernatural effects that happen under certain circumstances. Each district has personality. Each section provides plot hooks. I can picture what I would do with this city if I ran a game here, and I have a clear idea about the feel of the city. It has the kind of “this city is dangerous and maybe bad, but also, I can’t help but love it” energy that I want from a fantasy city.
I’m interested to see if there is any further discussion of this in the Southlands Worldbook, but I do wish there were some more discussion about potential issues with setting traits like slavery or patriotism being used as an excuse for racism. This is part of my ongoing wish to have more discussion of safety and content warnings normalized in all RPG products. Aside from that, I also kind of wish that some of the NPCs were called out elsewhere, outside of the appendix, because there are some great plot hooks that can get lost in the stat blocks.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you have even a passing interest in fantasy cities, you will likely be happy with this purchase. It’s got enough personality that it’s easy to use with other rulesets, but it also has solid support for the system for which it is written. This is a unique city presented with enough momentum to help you use it as the basis for any number of adventures. It has all the things you might want . . . sinister plotting, supernatural events, and competing factions that all exist to complicate the lives of your protagonists.