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Underkoffler's Overview: Dreaming Cities

I've finally had a chance to read this game; here are my brief impressions. This is not a review, per se -- you probably won't get much out of Underkoffler's Overview if you haven't read the game. What you will get is my opinions on the Negative, the Positive, and the Verdict.

[ Underkoffler's Overviews Archive ]





Dreaming Cities, Tri-Stat Urban Fantasy Genre
Written by Jo Ramsay/copperbird, Jason L. Blair/amanofhats, Elizabeth Rich, Jamais Cascio, and Phil Masters


Website: [ http://www.guardiansorder.com/games/tristat/ ]
Reviews: [ http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11243.phtml ]



The Negative

  • He Ain't Petty, He's Mah Brutha! A certain game of loss and redemption is NOT mentioned in the timeline of UF RPGs in the Introduction. I shake my tiny fist in rage! (and sob myself to sleep in the corner. . .)
  • Basically, I Don't Wanna Read That Again. (While this comment is a Negative for me, for others, it may be a Positive. YMMV.) Dreaming Cities reprints the majority of the Tri-Stat basic game system info -- character generation, Attributes, Defects, Skills, the lot. While I comprehend that this is to give newcomers a standalone gamebook, I'm an oldcomer: I've read the system details before. Yawn-inducing and slow-going.
  • Where's My Sensawunda? Frankly, the chapter on Urban Fantasy Magic left me cold. I'm trying to determine exactly why this is, and it's difficult. There's a lot of very cool stuff mentioned, like the Laws of Magic and Viral Marketing and such), but -- for me -- the game-system heavy presentation sort of drained the coolness out of each concept. Additionally, the short section on Black Magic was utterly unsatisfying to me, and didn't delve into what I see as the pernicious corruption of such Arts.
  • Second Verse, Same as the First. I think that two of the three settings -- "The Nightmare Chronicles" and "The World at Twilight" -- are too similar thematically; the book would have been stronger having another different sort of UF setting detailed. Both of these settings offer a World A/World B cosmology, strange invaders/castaways in the "real world," and a "secret war" motif as primary story engine.
  • Asynchronicles. "The Nightmare Chronicles" has a division between the Realm of Nightmares (demon-land) and the World of Thought (real world). Demons (or "Ashigath") appear in human nightmares, and humans appear in demon nightmares; dreams cross the border, or Incubata. I, personally, wouldn't have called demon-land "the World of Nightmares" -- it doesn't seem parallel to me.
    Also, I would have played up the divisions between Thought/Nightmares hinted at in the text. There's explicit mention that time, space, geography, and the laws of physics in demon-land are not consistent, and much of the logical and orderly organization of the real world is scary and frightening to demons. I was ready to run with that division, then I get hit with this on page 141: "To most Ashigath in our world, human beings are corrupt, contemptible, impure creatures, far too willing to embrace change and discard tradition." Kicked me right out of the setting.
    Furthermore, this chapter came off very "White Wolfy" or In Nomine-esque, with its varied but still rigid groups of demonic beings. Not to my taste. (Interestingly, the same sort of split in the last setting -- "The Small Folk" -- didn't bug me at all.)
  • Twi-Lite Skylite. Okay, first off: when referencing the storybook characters that come into the world and possess humans to play out their eternal stories? Use terms consistently. What I'm thinking of is that "Fables" is used quite a bit throughout the setting, but the correct game-system term is given as Incarnation, with two subtypes (Archetypes and Legends). Perhaps this was because some felt the setting was treading too close to DC Comics' IP, but if that were the case, all references to Fables should have been expunged. Furthermore, I'm not sure I like the differences between Archetypes and Legends; the very blurry division line between the two (basically, Legends have a distinct personality and unverifiable history, while Archetypes are more the role in a Story) may not even exist in literature to a gameable level.
    Secondly: I didn't care for the boxed text fiction vignettes at all -- often, they were obscure, unrelated to anything (even themselves), or just poorly put together. An example would be the one on page 186, where an "uninitiated to UF" character is looking at his hydra-wrecked house and is more angry than shocked. Additionally, we don't know how he arrived to see this, and without this understanding, the offhand mention of "the kids' room" troubled me deeply, for we don't see any concern on the part of this character, whether for the safety of his kids, or the destruction of his home, or the loss of his sanctuary -- just anger. Didn't ring true. And the vignette on page 188 was just dumb.
    Thirdly: Where are the evil witches? They are mentioned in regard to other characters' backstories -- and there's one major bad-guy witch -- but the sections on witches are all quite positively-slanted for good-guy witches.
    Lastly: On page 213, Camper Wallace wastes a fortune to research magic so he can control it and. . . make a fortune. The rest of the text here indicates that he's more into the dominating power over others that magic can give him. That one little phrase (actually, that entire paragraph), undercuts the whole damned NPC write-up.
  • It's a Small Folk After All... There's a couple things, while mentioned in a roundabout fashion, that really needed to be explicitly addressed.
    One: Small Folk kids start life as part of the clique of one or both of their parents, but often/usually join another one upon coming into their own. Different magic powers are associated with the cliques (and, granted, are usually only taught to dedicated clique members). Something in my gut says that Small Folk should have some ability (or detailed knowledge of, at least) with the powers of the clique they were born into and raised in.
    Two: I wanted more specific discussion about forming new cliques (and developing new powers), especially under the "Founding a Community" section.
    Three: We needed example NPCs.
    Four: I wanted a Bibliography for this chapter alone.
  • EDIT: Hi-ho, Spello! Forgot this bit earlier -- there are a surprising number of "spellos" (misspellings of words that a spell-checker won't catch; e.g., "two" for "to") in the text.



The Positive

  • Intro-A-Go-Go! A really excellent overview of the Urban Fantasy genre is found in the Introduction. I have quibbles about litcritty aspects and distinctions made, but that's really specific to my idiosyncratic ideas about UF. For absotively everyone who is not me, it's a fantastic primer.
  • Templatey Goodness! I felt the Occupational Templates in the Character Types chapter to be very well done. Nice coverage, nice approach; probably could have used a few more (City Bureaucrat, Public Works Employee, Cabdriver, etc.).
  • It's a Kind of Magic. As noted above, the ideas behind things like the Laws of Magic (Similarity, Contagion, and Names are Power) and Viral Marketing were very cool.
  • UFGMing. The Gamemastering chapter is quite good; I have quibbles, but they are minor and really don't need to be addressed here, as they're similar to the ones I have regarding the Introduction. Anyway, an extremely nice dissection of issues, themes, plots, twists, and such, which are specifically relevant to UF genre games. Kudos.
  • Nightmares of His While "The Nightmare Chronicles" setting didn't ring my bells, I could obviously see how it could be easily tuned to Buffy/Angel-esque (with a dash of WoD and IN in the mix) adventure.
  • Twilight Double-Header. A brilliant idea in "The World at Twilight" setting revolves around Archetypes and how different perspectives can influence campaign events. You can either play "Joe possessed by Prince Charming" as your character, and the end of that character's Story takes him out of the campaign, or you can play the Prince Charming Archetype, and if Joe Charming wins the Princess this session, next session, the player starts over with Bob becoming possessed by Prince Charming. This is a really, really cool idea and deserved more than a paragraph or two to play around with. Furthermore, it may have just given me a pointer for a direction to go in search of a solution to a niggling game-mechanics problem that's literally been bugging me for years. Excellent!
  • Small, But Potent "The Small Folk" setting is all around fantastic. The minor issues mentioned above are the only mildly negative things I can say about it, other than "This could have been its own book" (which probably would have solved my negative points). Indeed,IMAO, Dreaming Cities is worth purchasing on the strength of this setting alone.


The Verdict

  • Buy this book. It's good; a solid purchase, unless you are deep into UF and own more than two-thirds of the list of books mentioned in the Timeline of UF RPGs. If you, like me, dig UF stuff and own two-thirds or more of the works on that list, you may want to weigh the purchase a bit -- it's still worth it, but slightly less so. I'd compare it to the difference in the perceived value-for-cost between seeing a decent flick for full-price versus matinee price.


Check it out.

Tags: gaming, underkoffler's overviews
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