Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poison: Review

A little back-to-back, but thanks to a cleanup of some shipping delays, my copy of Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poisons shipped pretty quickly compared to some other Kickstarters. No reason to wait to read it though, lets dive in.

Harlequin’s is the seventh of Chamomile’s guides to everything. An urban guide to cities and poison. Offhand, my interest in city content is high, but my interest in poisons is low. Cities rarely get content, even though that is often a sizable portion of a campaign (how many players forget the villain’s name but remember the main city the adventure is in). On the flip side, most poison rules are very minor, and a weird combination of amazingly powerful and terrible, in such a way that players should always and never use them. Oftentimes in the same game. Which is strange for a plot element many stories don’t even use. At least Chamomile introduces some rules to make them interesting. As always, I’ve still got a hard copy for the review with screenshots cropped from the pdf (with permission). You can pick one up at Drivethrough or itch, in physical or digital versions.

The players portion somehow resists the urge to make a Shadowrun reference and is called Playing in the Shadow. In here, we have two subclasses, one for Rogues, the Shadowdancer, and one for Bards, the Lunatic Jester. Both lean into the carnival faction theme that will be familiar to followers of the sort of meta-setting being constructed behind the scenes for Chamomile’s work. A dancer and jester are also perfectly fine options for rogues and bards, so it works. The Shadowdancer is a callback to old prestige classes and lets the rogue jump into and out of shadows, which frankly, is always cool. The Lunatic Jester is directly featured in Petals and Thorns, and gives trick throws, and reminds me a bit of Shaco, especially with its Me and This Army ability to make duplicates.

A brief explanation of poisons is included, and some in game justifications are supplied for who uses them and why. My favorite part is the rules for turning an ingested poison into an injury or inhaled, or vice versa, along with the rules for poison bombs. It adds a lot of versatility to the poisons, but I’d have liked to see a poison focused subclass. As is, I’m still not sold it will come up a lot.

Hirelings are a huge part of the game, and we get quite a few pages written about them. I wasn’t expecting this in the book, but its super helpful. We get some DMing advice about how to stock taverns, what sort of hirelings you may want, and how many per tavern, which is one of those Chamomile details I appreciate. How many people are looking for a job in this tavern? Not “as many as you think seems cool” or “as many as you have time to make”. The answer is about 5, and here’s why. We get logic for whose there, how to hire them, and why they might want to work for you. These sorts of details immediately make a city-based game possible, and even give a framework and obvious quest structure for an open-ended game. We need to hire an assassin. He won’t work with us unless we are Dark Brothers in a thieve’s guild or have handled a CR 10 threat. We also get a framework for the frequent problem of suicidal hirelings, and how to get them to do things they don’t want to do. Or a solution to the adventurers who show up weekly hiring another rogue, and can’t explain what happened to the last one, with a reputation system.

Stealth rules are hard. In fact, they are so hard I’m not sure there’s been a playable version any edition of D&D. 3 works, but is tedious beyond reason to track, and the results are more often than not, decided before a die is rolled anyway. 4e was a game. 5e pretty much skips stealth rules, and essentially assumes you are playing with someone who half-remembers (or just remembers what people online have told them) rules from 2e or 3e. Chamomile introduces a tiered system of awareness that I think does a good job of diluting the binary system of pass/fail most stealth systems rely on. If you fail a check, you aren’t immediately spotted, and the DM has some guidance for how caught you might be. It’s a good system, and when combined with the DMing advice about guards, sentinels, and sentries, one gets the feeling Chamomile has played some of the good Assassin’s Creed games.

The last player’s section is Living in the Big City. It includes some really nice portions on the economy, guilds, and laws. The Economy portion will look very similar to my K20 Economics post, and that’s because we have read a lot of the same ideas on the topic. Being so similar, I obviously think this is really valuable, and encourage folks to read it. The Guilds portion gives similar advice, with special call outs to the Adventurer’s Guild and what they would actually do and how they actually operate. Lastly, we get a section on The Law, which is critical. Lots of folks think a pseudo-medieval society functions with some sort of Hammurabi’s Code of clearly defined laws, and punishments, arbitrated by a society of judges in big white wigs and enforced by an armed and trained police force, complete with detectives. The law doesn’t really work that way today, at any point in the past, and there is really no reason for it work that way in the fantasy setting described in D&D. It could work that way if you wanted it to, but you would probably have to take out a lot of other core assumptions, like dungeons.

The zine wraps up with a discussion on Mysteries and how to run them, with a reference to the Alexandrians excellent three clues method and some instructions on how to run a city adventure as an Urbancrawl, or a variant on point and hex crawls.

Harlequin’s contains everything you need to run a game in a city, and I’d recommend it for any DM looking to do an urban adventure, or just looking to flesh out their cities.

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