Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: Vor Rukoth

Strangely, I haven't seen any reviews for this come out of the places I usually read, so I figure I'd throw my hat into the review ring with Vor Rukoth. I picked it up last week along with copies of Tomb of Horrors and Players Handbook Races: Dragonborn. I think that Vor Rukoth has been kind of buried in the, rather understandable, excitement for the 4th Edition version of the famous Tomb of Horrors adventure. I personally think that's a shame because Vor Rukoth has a lot to offer DMs.

Vor Rukoth is the latest in the Adventure Site series of D&D4e products that started off with Hammerfast. Hammerfast was a relatively safe place, quite possibly a home base for players, and a hub for plot hooks that would frequently send players outside of Hammerfast. Vor Rukoth is, to some extent, just the opposite. It's a dangerous and deadly city ruin that plot hooks will send players into. But before I get into the content, let's start with the basics.

Vor Rukoth is a 32 page, full color paperback supplement written by Greg Bilsland detailing the fallen Tiefling city of the same name. The book has a suggested retail price of about $15. Similar to Hammerfast, the cover is not attached to the document allowing Wizards of the Coast to have a black and white map of Vor Rukoth and the surrounding area set at a scale of approximately 1 square = 275 feet. Although I like the map and I liked the one for Hammerfast as well, I honestly don't like how the cover isn't attached. It makes transporting or storing the entire thing feel messy, for lack of a better term. Also included with Vor Rukoth is a double-side full color poster map portraying two different environments.

The poster map is pretty sizable and quite good looking. The first side is a vividly red throne room or greeting hall and looks pretty good. If using it for combat, it'd be quite wide open without a lot of cover or terrain to consider. Because of some of the detailing, it might be a little hard to use "as is" to portray anything other than a demonic or dark throne area. You'd have to handwave why there's a giant depiction of a devil stabbing a dragon with a trident taking up an area 40+ feet in diameter on one side of the room. The other side is much more friendly to import to other uses. This other side depicts a section of ruined town and is really well done. There are ruined buildings of all sorts, statues, dead trees, even fountains and what appear to be wells. It doesn't feel nearly as Vor Rukoth specific as the throne room side, so DMs who are looking to get the most out of this product will be able to use it to represent any long abandoned and ruined town.

Moving on to the book itself, Vor Rukoth begins with a page and a half introducing the city and giving some background information about it. The gist of it being that Vor Rukoth was a city of the Bael Turath Empire and, in the waning days of the war with Arkosia, it was overrun by devils in a desperate attempt to save the city from the Dragons and Dragonborn. This, obviously, did not go well. The next approximately two pages discuss the outpost of Coyote's Refuge, a small tent town outside Vor Rukoth which acts as a jumping off point for expeditions into the ruins. Coyote's Refuge definitely has a wild west feel to it with quite a hard edge to it. Though it's safe compared to Vor Rukoth, I think characters should feel like they need to watch their back and their coin purse while in Coyote's Refuge. This is where the adventure and plot hooks start showing up. Several of the important NPCs in town are listed and some of them have a hook associated with them that can get players off on an adventure.

The next five pages are devoted to the different factions to be found in the area. There's some good variety, ranging from a consortium of merchants & explorers, to a group of mages, to agents of the Raven Queen. Each faction has a general overview given as well as some of the key NPCs involved in the faction. Some of these factions could probably be transplanted untouched into nearly any campaign, either as antagonists or potential allies. Some would need some work to pull away from the Vor Rukoth setting, but I don't think it would be terribly difficult. All of the factions also have plot hooks associated with them, but they're not listed here. Instead they're listed in the area of Vor Rukoth where the hooks would send the players, which I think is a good choice.

Next is about a page of "Events", things that can happen in or around Vor Rukoth to shake things up. If players have been venturing in and out of the ruins for a while, this could alter the landscape that might be getting a little too familiar to the players. Now, on page 11, we finally get to the ruined city of Vor Rukoth itself. The ruin is broken up into eight different areas, each of which gets about 2-3 pages devoted to it. Within each area, between two and six (usually about four or five) potential adventure sites are listed as well as any plot hooks that may be be luring the players to those areas. Many of these plot hooks are directly related to the factions listed earlier, so there may be a little flipping back and forth between the two parts of the book. Though the ruins as a whole have a demons and undead sort of theme, each of the areas further refines things to their own particular feel. My personal favorite areas are the Obsidian Spires, which is an area of ruined arcane towers, and the Lost District, which is an area of underwater and half-drowned houses and buildings.

There aren't a lot of game stats or mechanical bits to be found in the book, and I think that's actually a good thing. It gives DMs free reign to do what they like with the area without feeling like there's a way things "should be". That said, there are still crunchy bits to be found in Vor Rukoth. There are monsters, items, traps, and poisons ranging from about level 9 to about level 15. Many of them could probably used quite easily outside of a Vor Rukoth centered campaign.

As far as a Vor Rukoth campaign goes, you could probably quite easily run a short campaign set entirely in this area. A self-motivating group of explorers especially could have a great time going on expeditions into the city, either as the result of one of the plot hooks given or just as players wanting to see what can be found. There's a wide cast of NPCs given that they can interact with, either in the city or in Coyote's Refuge which can add a needed social dynamic to that sort of campaign. I think a more likely scenario for most people is that Vor Rukoth will be a short term stay before players and the campaign move on elsewhere and the book is well suited for that too. Lastly, there's the people who like to get things that they can mine for ideas, items, or monsters to use in their homebrew campaigns. I personally think that there's a lot to like about Vor Rukoth from that perspective. It's true that there aren't a lot of crunchy bits to take elsewhere, but to make up for it most of them are quite easy to transplant. There's very little Vor Rukoth specific that needs to be filed off, so to speak. Beyond that, there's a wealth of ideas to be taken from the book. Coyote's Refuge could prove to be a template for a hard and dangerous frontier town. Many of the ruin's areas could be turned into a more standalone element, like turning the Lost District into a separate half-sunken town, or incorporated into something else, like using the Ruby Throne as the centerpiece of your homebrew city.

In conclusion, I really like Vor Rukoth. I think that it's a great product and I think that it's definitely worth buying. My only real gripe is the cover, as I mentioned before. Beyond that it's full of things that a good DM can find useful in whatever kind of campaign they're planning to run. Unless it's Dark Sun, but Dark Sun kind of breaks a lot of rules that way. The poster map is an excellent addition, especially the versatile ruined town side. Vor Rukoth is not a book that you want if you're not looking to do a little work, however. It's very much a sandbox that a DM can create their own encounters, monsters, and designs in and doesn't act like an adventure module. I think that's the best thing that can be said about Vor Rukoth really. It gives you the tools, the backdrop, and plenty of ideas then turns the DMs loose to see what they can do with it.