Game: Visira: City of Sorrows
Review Dated: 14th, November 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 11
Average Score: 5.50
Gosh. I’ve greatly enjoyed Darkfuries floorplans before; they’re top quality and cheap. Visira: City of Sorrows isn’t a set of floorplans and at $10 it’s not particularly cheap for a PDF either. Mind you, most super-cheap PDFs are shorter than Visira’s 129 pages. So, Visira isn’t cheap, the city isn’t a set of floorplans but it certainly is high quality product.
The City of Sorrows plays to my tastes. The “City of Sorrows” is an appropriate moniker for Visira but there’s no trace of badly designed “tragically hip angst” that steals into other RPGs that like to talk about sorrow. The setting is high fantasy; half-elf prostitutes work in the city, lizardmen swim in the harbour and the city watch makes wise use of both mages and healing potions but this isn’t the lazy cheese fantasy that can be so annoying. Visira is an intricate city that’s steeped in history and conflict and this supplement lays that all out for you to soak up at your leisure. If you want new prestige classes, new spells or even more new feats then this isn’t one for you. On the other hand, if you already have several hundred of the above and are looking for a brave new world rich in character then Visira is just what you’ve been waiting for.
The quality of writing is great, unexpectedly so after the series of mainly illustrated products before hand. Beginning the supplement by describing the pitching and rolling of a ship named Lust was a sly but deft move. It’s not just the opening atmospheric story that’s well written; it’s the whole darn thing. Real illustrations are few and far between though and this is especially noticeable in such a long PDF. Nevertheless the download doesn’t become the blinding sea of text that PDFs with scant artwork can become. Scattered around the work, in fairly liberal doses, are full colour heraldic shields and these do wonders for both the presentation and product completeness. The shields themselves are for the states and countries that border or share history with Visira but they’re not always placed next to corresponding paragraphs of text and this can catch you out if you let your guard down. There’s something just less than perfect about the colouring of the shields too and it’s partly due to the baroque atmosphere the text spins for the city itself – they’re just slightly too colourful, too obviously computer rendered, too bright. This is just a little thing though, just a niggle in the side of a product with few flaws.
The logical order of the supplement makes perfect sense. It begins with the history of the city, explaining why and how it was built. This history makes free and plentiful use of global politics without really explaining the references. We know that Visira is in the Nation of Blacksword and that it’s an evil and inhospitable place. We know there have been conflicts with the Silver League and unfortunate alliances in great wars, the exact details of the enemies and allies are left out but we can pick up hints and clues from the text. In a way this is quite pleasant, as your knowledge of the City of Sorrows builds up you start to be able to put together a clearer picture of the surrounding area. There is actually a fair explanation of the Nation of Blacksword in a small chapter right near the end of the product so if players stray out of the city then you as GM will have somewhere to stand and something to spin out. Naturally the history of the city refers to the building of certain parts of it and the organisations and churches that have played key roles. The supplement then goes on to look at these three.
The city is divided into Wards, into areas relating to where they are and what they do. The Waterfront, for example, is one Ward and the Old Harbour is another. And yes, Visira is a port; it is the sort of city you can dump your players in without having to worry too much about surrounding details. Dividing a city into Wards isn’t anything new – but there’s a reason for that, it’s both accurate and convenient. The tour of each Ward follows a pattern. It begins with the history of the Ward, it’s rise and in some cases it’s fall. There’s then another short story, a page or so of more atmosphere building text, text that uses the people and places introduced and detailed in the supplement. Then there’s a look at the organisations present in the area. As you can imagine this almost always means a look at the City Watch for that Ward first. Do you know what? It’s really nice to have stats and a personality at hand for the Sergeant and key figures in the Watch for any given area. These are the people (and correct me if I’m wrong) that your player characters are most likely to end up speaking too. It’s not that the Watch steals the show – oh no – not in a city full of pirates, slavers, religions, politics and secrets. There are always plenty of other plot-juicy organisations to keep you happy. I particularly like Scarlet Veil, an organised guild of assassins and spies that masquerades under the guise of a prostitution guild. The women dye their skin – no, not scarlet, but blue for some reason – and colour their hair, decorate themselves with tattoos and murder with a smile. Better still, the head of this guild isn’t a super sexy cliché elf but a lady who has become rather too fond of rich food now she has all this money to spend. I did tell you that this was high fantasy but not necessarily the stereotypical, cliché bloated cheese nonsense of sundry other works. Important or interesting buildings and locations are also included, sometimes these places are just inns or taverns with a quick note on what the innkeeper and his prices are like but they can be more detailed too.
Deities have their own chapter. The colourful computer art that was the hallmark of the heraldry makes a return here. The icons for the deities are smaller, more muted and less prone to bright colours than the shields and so the style gets away with more here. As I’ve said, you won’t find yet-another cleric prestige class here, instead you’ll be told about the temples for the god, the priests who serve, the cleric domains available, the favourite colours, favourite classes, favourite weapons, typical alignment, what the appropriate clothes are and other things like holy days and whether or not sacrifices are offered. Frankly, this is the sort of information that’s more helpful to me in a product about a city like the City of Sorrows than a bunch of new spells would be.
Darkfuries‘ legacy of aerial plans is not forgotten in Visira. There are no floorplans this time (and you don’t really need them when for just a few bucks you’ve got access to a whole range of floorplans from the same company) but maps of the city. There’s a map of the whole city divided into Wards and then there are maps of each Ward in close up. These are lovely colourful maps. That’s great but lovely colourful maps cause my printer to roll over and die so it’s nice to see black and white versions of the same maps immediately afterwards. You won’t be able to print the whole PDF out in one, you’ll need to state the page range but this is no real hardship and with a electronic document of this size you’d be advised to print it out in small batches rather than one single shot anyway. There’s no sidebar artwork to eat through your ink either although there is a colour header bar at the top of every page that will be nearly as hungry. It does make the page look good though.
I can see crunch-kins shying away from Visira: City of Sorrows. If the hobby is all about killing things then there’s not very much here for you. If, on the other hand, you’d rather explore a rich environment, roleplay with entertaining and detailed NPCs and get caught in the sort of political, social and back-stabbing sort of plot that’s just as dangerous as an angry ogre then you’ll find you can live off Visira for a long, long time. Visira holds another trump, a slightly strange one but one worth noting anyway. Your players probably won’t have bought Visira, they probably won’t have flicked through it in the shop, the surprises in here will probably surprise them. You can print it off and GM from behind your screen or from your folder of notes and your group won’t even know to look on line in order to spoil their fun – and I know some naughty players do just that.
If it sounds as if you’d like Visira then you’re probably right.