By Thilo Graf
This urban noir adventure anthology set in the by now legendary clockwork city of Zobeck from Open Design is 94 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 blank page and 1 page back cover, leaving 88 pages of content, so let’s follow Ben McFarland’s advice and get gritty and grimy!
The pdf kicks off with so-called faces of Zobeck, i.e. characters and creatures that dwell at the dark and dirty underbelly of the city, from grimy urban fey to drug-addicted mages, enigmatic individuals that can make corpses disappear, goblin assassins and alchemist who dilute their potions – all the Npcs featured in this chapter come with their own background, goals and secrets and all are somewhat influenced by the harsh dog-eat-dog- realities of life in the grime – if you want an example from literature, think Thieves World.
Of course, we not only get new NPCs, but also new places and it is here that the anthology starts to truly rock hard – each of the locations is iconic and comes with its own, highly detailed map. The Black Lotus, an opium den led by the enigmatic, kabuki-style painted man who offers any magical favors you require would be only one example. Of course, we also visit the black market in the eponymous cartways of Zobeck. Once we’re done shopping with illicit goods, we show up at the neutral ground of the city’s underworld, the botanical rooftop garden of Hommal for a nice tea (or other substance) we’ll visit the old Stross bathhouse/massage parlour, before we, refreshed, but somewhat disturbed by the glimpse of a shadowfey in the pool, go to the silken scabbard to relax with the prostitutes there. It is also here, where we find Tyron, king of fixers, the best of a kind of rogues (new archetype + new roguish talent) who can get/repair just about anything – for the right price/favour!
Before we jump head-first into all the adventures awaiting us, let’s check out the traces of Zobeck at the end of the book: 8 new feats centre on urban (and non-lethal – yes!) problem-solving and 16 regional traits to create e.g. characters who are sons of butchers or gang members. We also get 4 excellent new spells (including a amoral atonement), 3 stellar new mundane items (e.g. special paint only visible via a certain lens), a new weapon quality (disarming) and 6 new magic items, including a black book of confessionals, a bag of traps and a cloak that makes people forget they even saw/met you. Excellent tools for those on the problematic side of the law.
That being said, we’ll dive into Ben McFarland’s contribution to the adventures with “Everyone Lies” (House M.D. anyone?). From here on, the SPOILERS reign. potential players might want to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All righty! Everyone lies is a take on the quintessential femme fatale story – a thief has botched a job and wants the PCs to find his lady and warn her. Unfortunately, that’s not all – said thief has acquired a black book of confessions of a noble and now the secret police also tries to press-gang the PCs into getting it back for them. Said thief’s guild happens to be the dread cloven nine and this guild also wants the book. The PCs will have to embark on a investigation that is hindered by all factions, several brawls and finally meet to girl and keep her safe – unfortunately, she doesn’t have to book with her. The PCs have to plan a heist to get to the book and manipulate the power-structures of the city’s underbowels to get out of the crossfire – possibly even with the help of the notorious drakhul! An excellent and quintessentially noir adventure.
The second adventure, “Rust” by the master of creepiness Richard Pett has two disreputable merchants contact the PCs – Mister Corpulent and Mister Doldrum, both more than meets the eye, want to hire the PCs to put an end to the hauntings of the “night-things” and claim a treasure of one butcher-lord/minor industrialist that has been disposed by his workers. Unfortunately, the greedy slaughterman does not rest easy and neither his new body, nor his automatons and newfound gargoyle-artist allies want the twisted merchants or the PCs to succeed, resulting in first a disturbing sandbox investigation and then a showdown in an animated, possessed slaughterhouse. Backstabbing clients included… Stellar. Richard pett at his finest – grimy, iconic, disturbing – Mnar, indeed!
Of course, no noir anthology would be complete without a heist, and Christina Stiles provides one in “The Fish and the Rose” – the PCs are supposed to steal a magical picture and hand it over to a shadowy employer. Of course, only a most lethal entrance to the cart-ways, guarded by a local legend of a brawler leads to the vault and said vault is guarded as well. However, the planning of the heist/possibilities for the PCs to find these means of entrance feel a bit shoehorned – more versatility/ options for the Pcs to plan the heist as well as a more lethal vault for a more Mission Impossible-feeling would have been nice. A good adventure, but not on par with the first two.
Next on the line would be “The First Lab” by Mike Franke, which opens a rather dark chapter in the history of Zobeck: Kovacs, one of the masterminds (if not THE mastermind) behind the clockwork knights seems to have experimented with soul removal, infernal creatures etc. and some of his prestigious creations might be still out there. Worse, someone has stolen a diary leading to his lab and there still are…things…inside. The PCs are hired to reclaim the diary and keep their mouths shut. In order to make up the advantage of thieves, the PCs will have to sell some of their dreams to the dragged woman. Once the deal’s been made, they’ll be at Kovac’s lab and will have to deal with the infernal clockwork abominations and clochworker assassins. Their primary antagonist hiding behind the lab’s defences – an insane clockworker cleric hell-bent on utter eradication of his own kind.
Matthew Stinson’s “Rebuilding a good man” is a completely different kind of scenario – Heet Nul, philanthropist, sponsor of orphanages and downright awesome guy is dying of old age and his heir is a greedy, evil s-o-b. Fortunately, a devil is currently trying to extort the painted man, who doesn’t take lightly to any such attempts, leaking precious information to Heet’s friend – the devil’s lackeys are stealing a clockworker body and it’s up to the PCs to steal it back from them. Of course, that’s only the beginning – they need a specialist to transfer Heet’s soul from his failing form to his new body. Unfortunately the only guy available is in the Silent Scabbard, drunk and uncooperative. Even worse, the parts are not enough and potions, a heart etc. is still missing – tailed by the devil and Heet’s heir, the PCs are on a run through the night to scrounge everything together and save at least one good man in this cesspool of corruption. Even better, each and everything they do has to be weighed between doing the prudent thing and the faster thing – Heet’s clock is ticking… By far my favorite of the scenarios in this anthology!
Mike Franke’s “Ripper”is a story that has the PCs press-ganged into a murder-investigation against a serial-killer after they fail to stop a lynching. The investigation is intriguing, but there is one thing I really didn’t like about it: It’s yet another “possessed-dagger”-story. All right, I can name “Fury in Freeport” and “Hour of the Knife” from the top of my head and could probably find more examples that have done this schtick. Not impressed, in spite of the cool imagery involved.
The final adventure, Christina Stiles’ “Flesh Fails” is more interesting – a love-triangle between two archmages and a master alchemist has ended rather unpleasantly with an engineered death and now the PCs stumble into the machinations of one truly powerful antagonist and his diabolical schemes. In order to find the truth, the PCs will have to do some research in an exclusive BDSM-club devoted to Marena and finally stop one of the most powerful arcanists in all of Zobeck! I really liked this adventure, not only for the mature depiction of BDSM not only being for the evil guys, but also because the adventure has potential galore to be expanded – the master plan of the villain lends itself to further expansion and all in all, I would have loved for the adventure to be a full-blown mega-adventure instead of a part of an anthology, but oh well.
Editing and formatting are good, though not as good as I’ve come to expect from Open Design-projects, there are a lot of bold/non-bold inconsistencies in e.g. the feats. Layout is STUNNING, though – 2-column standard and the artworks by Glen Zimmerman, distinct, creepy, grimy and dirty is simply AWESOME and something that truly helps the feeling of this noir-anthology. The pdf comes fully bookmarked. Streets of Zobeck is a stellar anthology of locations, characters and adventures that centre on the grimy parts of the city – in fact, the overall details of the setting converge into a sense of detail that makes the city as much a character as the people who inhabit it. While I’m not too excited about the traits and feats, the magical items and especially the characters and locations are simply stellar and should be considered the new benchmark for urban characters/locations. Add to that a selection of mature, grimy adventures from the seedy underbelly that mostly feel distinct and completely different from your usual fare and you get another excellent anthology from Open Design. My final verdict, due to the one adventure that falls flat and the editing and formatting glitches, will be 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.
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