Ever wanted a city depicting a magocracy? Want to have it for just 5 bucks? Well, there's actually a nice old-world-style city sourcebook out there, namely Headless Hydra Games that fits the bill (and which also made my top-ten of 2011-list...)
This pdf is 167 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving a whopping 164 pages of content for the setting, so let's check out HHG's City of Mages!
As has been the tradition with Mor Aldenn books, this one also includes a short story that is supposed to draw us into the city's flair - in contrast to all 3 of the player's guide, though, Jason Kimble's 12-page short story Demon Dreams actually paints an understandable, logic and exciting city rife with adventure, social structures and most of all, doesn't fall into the "Alert the Mages"-scheme, but rather provides valid reasons why the mages don't immediately act and why one of the most powerful figures of the city remains behind the scenes. Clever and a nice read.
After that, we get a guide to the city, including a b/w-2-page map, information on the archmages and governing bodies, guilds, religions (including some sample religious tales) and, most of all: The 3 laws of magic that serve as the judicial foundation of how Wizardry is practiced in Mor Aldenn. Local holidays, festivals, organizations etc are covered as well and after reading this mere paragraph, the city makes more sense to me than after the lecture of the whole player's guide. More importantly, the grand logic bugs have been wiped and while I'd love to see a more detailed section on festivals, laws etc., the amount of information provided is enough to create plenty of adventures. Any awkward wordings that have plagued the predecessor have completely vanished and been replaced with text that is fluent to read and is actually enjoyable. The section can be considered a success.
After this very fluffy introduction to the city of mages, we are introduced to crunch galore in the player's options. The first new bit of crunch would be the Spellwarden, a 20-level base-class alternative for the Magus focused on defense, especially against magic users. This class was somewhat of a surprise for me, as I sincerely didn't think it would work. Surprisingly, though, it does: The class gets d8, 2+ Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good fort and will-saves, profiency with light weapons and armor and martial weapons, Int-based spellcasting like a wizard and an arcane pool that can be used to apply defensive qualities to armor and shield as well as defensive bonuses. He gets medium armor proficiency relatively fast and can cast with shields. Quite cool, he also can use his arcane pool to grant defensive auras when casting spells, the effect of the aura depending on the school of the spell cast, effectively adding another usage to prepared spells that would otherwise be useless in combat. They also are rather adept at counterspelling and get spell progression of up to 6th level. His arcana selection is limited, though, as is his spell-list and he gets 4 additional arcanas. I really like the class, as it makes for a great "anti-magic-cop"-character/SWAT-team-like style. Think about Spellwardens attacking a cabal of wizards conducting a ritual with the PCs...or the PCs trying to pull one of while beset by them. Two thumbs up for this one!
This section also contains 3 new races - the Centaur, the Gaiant and the Sprite. I have already commented on the hgaiant and centaur in their respective original products (Player's Guide & Gaiants Discovered), so just to quickly sum it up: Centaurs - I prefer SGG's Lapith-race, as they can turn bipedal and thus explore normal dungeons etc without the mount/large creature problems of the centaur. Gaiants: I like the race per se, their fluff and idea, but some parts of them are overpowered: There is a racial trait that gives them a natural attack (with reach, they are large!) that does 1d12 damage. Go forth and weep, ye monks! This section was a wasted chance to repair/improve some balance-concerns. The Sprite is an interesting race: They get +2Dex and Cha, -2 Str, an additional form of movement, low-light vision, a bonus feat, +2 to a kill selected from a limited list, a daily reroll and...well. They are tiny. PFRPG's first tiny PC-race. There are also new feats (29 to be precise) that support the sprites, centaurs and the ley-lines. Ley lines? Yep, these feats grant supernatural abilities and work better on ley lines and not at all in anti-magic fields, but more on ley-lines later.
Next up are 4 archetypes: An arcane paladin, a hunter of magical creatures (ranger, including a new combat style) and 2 new rogue archetypes, the Prestidigator who can use his talents at range (think a better arcane trickster of the 3.0 days of yore) and the street magician who gets minor magic access. Then there is also a new wizardry subdomain for the cleric and we get new spells as well - the spells mostly centered on nature and the land, fitting with the fey/old world theme. It should be noted that some of the spells are reprints from e.g. the Gaiant-book etc. Finally on the new-rules side, we get the Aldennic Spellshield 5-level PrC. Where the Spellwarden is the magic anti-mage specialist, the Spellshield is his mundane equivalent: Gaining full BAB, d10, medium fort and will saves and 6+Int skills per level, they get minor spell resistance and several tricks for using dirty fighting to neutralize arcane threats. Nice PrC and one of the examples where a PrC is truly prestigious and justified - nice!
This concludes the player chapter and we'll now go into detail - the third chapter details specific sites of the City of Mages: The chapter contains information on the wizard's towers and the fallen tower (the latter complete with a detailed map and read-aloud text), the tower of all-magic (the center of the mage's administration, also with a map) and include some fully stated NPCs and hooks galore. The section also contains detailed information on inns and taverns, including maps for the Wizard's Staff and Ugly Harpy. We also get 16 shops with read-aloud texts, including a place to care for animals and an arena to battle strange creatures. The section also includes a map of the dungeon of barrowdelve, the citiy's necropolis that contains benign ancestral spirits as well as recently a disturbing influx of undead that roam the street at night. The mechanics of ancestral spirits make them essentially benign haunts - neat idea! The final location that comes with a one-page map is the house of blades, a kind of fighter's guild. (And if you want more, I'd recommend Soldragon Academy - a great module for $2.50!)
Chapter 4 details one of the truly unique aspects of Mor Aldenn, the ley lines - set on a nexus of several of them, the chapter includes rules to tap into their respective powers, a map of Mor Aldenn with the known ley lines drawn into it. We also get write-ups for teh respective ley lines including lore-sections to detail the strange aspects of the overabundance of magic and several other bits and pieces of knowledge on them. The lines also come with DCs to know/recognize them and generally, the section makes creating more rather easy. The chapter also includes places of power, another cool staple of fantasy literature that is rather underused and contain fey circles, monolithic mounds and stone-circles as well as specific information for e.g. the Nexus of Mor Aldenn. I did VERY much enjoy this section in particular, due to it being unique and helping set the city of mages apart from other fantasy settings.
Now, what is adventure without foes? Mor Aldenn, the city of mages definitely has enough of them and chapter 5. Unique villainous foes like the Demon of the Fallen Tower, a unique demon (CR 18, btw.) with rather deadly powers that is confined to the fallen tower that once housed the city's summoners, seething and seeking to escape. The giants of the grand Ossindrilon also get their fully stated king and the skin-less, flayed-looking harpies of the Spindlewood flow get an erinyes-queen. And then, there are two more major foes - Taraathalorm Wyrmmother: A green dragon ghost that still stalks the woods, lusting for revenge. And then, there is the final primary antagonist of the city, the dreaded mistress of covens, the Night Hag - she is a CR 18 witch 14 and sheis quite an iconic, almost Baba Yaga-like figure. Have i mentioned the malign, intelligent cauldron?
After these movers and shakers, we get a brief timeline of Mor Aldenn' history and then new monsters. That is, they might be new for you. They include the Marsh Dragon, the Bog Giant, the Gold Cap, the Hag Spider, the Leyspinner, the Mahr, the Mirejack, Mythravens, Portunes, Spell Pikes and Veraxar. It should be noted that all of these creatures are included in the Mor Aldenn Creature Compendium (for detailed information, check out my review of it) and that the Spell Pike got a new piece of artwork - nice.
In chapter 8, we are introduced to the lands surrounding the city, including stats for the clockwork-possessed Miller, Moon Folly (I'd recommend checking out the pdf, though!), Ossindrilon and the Spindleflow as well as some pieces of information on hazards and a random encounter table.
The last chapter is devoted to an introductory adventure called Ringside seats.
This contains SPOILERS, so potential players might wish to jump to the conclusion.
...Still here? SPOILERS ahead.
All right! The PCs are contacted by Arvin Pheltapor, owner of Pheltapor's Phantabularium, the place where due to a loop-hole in the law, people may bet on (non-lethal) bouts against strange creatures. If the PCs have only knocked out his escaped wild animals, they will have a thankful customer at their hands who wants them to escort his latest acquisition home. On their way to get the goods, the PCs are beset by Lizardfolk and finally receive the boars - boars? Well... the particularly ugly, scaled boars are in fact three imps in disguise and thus can manage to easily escape from their confinement. One leads the PCs on a merry chase, one confronts them in the Phantabulrium and the final wants to be taken as a familiar once his brothers have been vanquished. (Though until Improved Familiar is taken, the creature is more than unreliable...). I did enjoy this rather light-hearted introduction to the City of Mages and while the scenario per se is nothing to gasp in astonishment at, I do have read far, far worse scenarios, especially at the back of a campaign setting book. The pdf concludes with an NPC-name appendix that would be even more useful, would it include the page numbers where the information on the NPCs can be found - after all, many of them are scattered throughout the book.
Editing and formatting are actually top-notch - I did notice less than 5 glitches on over 160 pages - neat! In contrast to some of the other offerings of Headless Hydra Games, I noticed only one page that contains some rather awkward wordings, making this a very good read and pleasantly surprising me with the quality of the rather concise writing. The pdf comes with quite extensive bookmarks that make navigation of the pdf very easy. The pdf is slightly bigger than 100 mbs, at this length, with the wide variety of high-res maps and fully bookmarked, this is ok. Layout adheres to the 2-column b/w- standard and the b/w-artworks rock. I already commented on the quality of writing and the new crunch is mostly nice. While I'm still not sold on centaurs and a certain racial trait of the Gaiant, I do absolutely love the fluff of the city. The city of mages makes sense and is a concisely-presented magocracy that makes for a neat little setting and contains some rather interesting characters, hooks galore and dreadful villains. I particularly enjoyed the "anti-mage"-classes like the magus-variant and the PrC.
Since I already commented on the high quality artworks and neat maps, I'll move on to some bits that didn't quite strike my fancy as much: If you already own all the other Mor Aldenn-pdfs like e.g. Moon's Folly and the Player's Guide, you'll find some of the information/content repeated. This holds especially true for the monster-section. I would have loved to see new critters there or alternatively get all the monsters from the compendium reprinted, not just a selection. I also would have loved some sample statblocks for Spellwarden-guardsmen and similar characters that utilize the unique crunch of the city - as written, you'll have to build the statblocks for e.g. watchmen yourself. On the other hand, the campaign setting is actually cheap for the amount of content provided and the quality you'll encounter in these pages.
While personally, I think some of the options to be on the upper scale of power, generally these glitches are by far outweighed by the cool ideas and content and the rather distinguished, unique fluff of the setting. The Ley lines especially offer potential galore. I am really hard-pressed to judge how to rate this particular pdf - On the one hand, I absolutely loved a lot of the content and Mor Aldenn actually came to a logical life in my mind - this by one who abhorred the player's guide and thought that it made no sense, by the way! On the other hand, there are some crunchy bits that are unbalanced, some wordings that could be slightly more precise and there is some reprinted material. Due to these minor issues, I can't bring myself to rating this campaign setting the full 5 stars, but I'll settle gladly for a final verdict of 4.5 stars. Your mileage may vary whether you'd round up or down. Due to the low price of only 5 bucks for more than 100 pages of material, though, and due to liking the fairy-tale like, truly magical atmosphere, villains with unique abilities etc.pp. of the setting, I'll round up. Just please be aware of the rough edges I mentioned in this review.