Vornheim tries to do two things: provide a setting for a D&D campaign in the fantastic city of Vornheim, and provide a set of ideas and heuristics to allow a GM to quickly create and sustain an interesting campaign in a city of their own devising. Vornheim succeeds very well at the first, and if it is not perfectly successful at the second, it is in this area where it is most innovative and interesting.
The city of Vornheim has some of the feel of a Nordic Lankhmar; vast, somewhat forboding, with windy, snowswept streets. A conventional city book would provide a map, with locations keyed to text descriptions. Smith, interestingly, feels this is a bad approach; it means either that the GM must memorize a lot of detail before a game session, or else that play will be slowed by the need to look things up frequently during the game.
Instead, Smith provides descriptions of only a handful of important locations in the city -- the House of the Medusa, the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, the Library of Zorlac -- with enough detail that each could be a setting for one or several sessions of play. But their locations are not set; instead, the GM is advised to locate them wherever they wish, as befits the need of their campaign.
In addition to these locations, Smith provides a huge number of tables. D&D tables of the random encounter variety are usually dull kluges; these are anything but. Almost any entry on these tables has enough creative detail to be the genesis of a new adventure. Here's an example; if you roll 83 on the "I Search the Body" table, you get:
- d10 x 100 living snails with specially-made shells cast from pure silver worth 1 sp. Snails are sentient[sic], communicate telepathically, and will beg PCs not to trade them away.
Or as another example, a typical random encounter table will say something like "1D6 goblins." Here's an entry from this game's version:
- PC is accused of violating a local sumptuary law because of some item of clothing s/he is wearing. Militia attempts to arrest PC.
In other words, these tables are perfectly suited to serve a basic narrative need: tossing in a complication as the players are trying to accomplish something.
Smith also provides a number of interesting heuristics to quickly generate elements of the city as needed, without requiring the GM to map and plan ahead of time. As an example, rather than drawing a street grid, the GM is advised to roll a D10, then draw the shape of the number rolled on scrap paper. If you roll a 1, for instance, you have a straight street terminating in a T intersection. If the players come to the end of a street you've mapped, you simply roll again, and draw the new number rolled -- so if the players are at the bottom left of the "1", and you roll a 2, you might draw the 2 so that the end of the 1 intersects the top curve; the street ends in a curved street leading either northeast or southeast. The streets you generate this way are the "major" streets, and as necessary, you arbitrarily draw in smaller ones among the major ones, connecting them in a warren of sidestreets and alleys, hiding the numerical nature of the street layout from the players.
While the few iconic features of the city described in the book make for interesting and somewhat bizarre adventures, it's in this system of combined heuristics for speedy play, and random tables generating creative and interesting details, that Vornheim excels.
It does not, however, quite deliver on the promise of giving a GM the tools to create any city they wish; the detailed nature of the table results mean that they are, inevitably, intimately tied to the society and nature of Smith's unique city. But you can see how, by taking his tables as a model and writing your own, you could create a system to evoke the feeling and ethos of a very different city.
Vornheim is designed for use with D&D, but it is stats-light, and could easily be used in a fantasy campaign using a different rules set.
It's not really germane to the review, but it's interesting that the designer is better known as porn star Zak Sabbath.