Book Review: City Slices 1: Marketplace Fun by William C. Pfaff from Escape Velocity Gaming

Most towns and cities in fantasy roleplaying game settings are busy hubs of activity. Rarely do people make any coin by sitting on their duffs all day. Instead, people are rushing around collecting raw materials, manufacturing those goods, and then selling them in the marketplace. The nobility are the exception to the rule, spending their time eating, schmoozing, and getting what they want while they stand on the backs of the common people… [Ahem.] Sorry, got a little carried away there.

Where was I? Oh yes! The marketplace in most towns and cities should be a crowded, noisy, crazy place on days when the market is operating. So why does the city market seem more like a modern supermarket (calm, well-stocked, clean) than what I imagine a medieval market would have been like (small booths and carts packed closely together, sellers yelling above the crowd noise to get customer attention, in muddy, disgusting conditions sharing space with horses and dirty people)? Some games I’ve played in, markets and stores are more like playing “Go Fish?” (Do they have any 5’s?) than haggling with your usual greedy vendor.

Well, William
C. Pfaff (author of Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens) and Escape Velocity Gaming have a solution for you. Ready-made encounters, vendors, stalls, and challenges to spice up markets in D&D 4e campaigns in City Slices 1: Marketplace Fun. And though the book is written with 4e in mind, I suspect with little or no tweaking an enterprising GM can use 90% of what’s in the book. With this book as inspiration, GMs should have plenty of ideas for activities to make the market much more fun than usual…

The book is split into four separate sections – Encounters, Skill Challenges, Stalls, and Vendors. So we’ll walk through each one…

In the “Interesting Encounters” section, Pfaff starts out with a bang. After seeing the runaway carriage scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) jumping atop carriages and carts with abandon through the cobblestone streets of London, it’s tough not to like the idea of setting a carriage loose in a marketplace. Such a mini-adventure can draw the attention of people watching the affair and lead to the PCs being hired for other tasks. Or maybe use it just to break up the monotony of the usual shopping trip. Either way, Pfaff offers a few time-sensitive solutions to stop the carriage before it does serious harm to anyone or anything in a crowded space… And that’s just the first encounter. Why not set a group of kids in a crowded market as thieves stealing things from stall owners? Or a gambling game in some far corner out of the prying eyes of the city watch? Maybe the party has been asked to go on a shopping trip for a local noble or businessman?

For “Skill Challenges,” we see some of the common things folks would do in a market. Perhaps they have to help a lost child find his or her parents? Or learn how to haggle better? Or fix a stall before the merchant can open? There are plenty of minor activities here to keep an enterprising party guessing for a while and expose them to potential employers or people who want to do them harm… And if that doesn’t work, you can always set a market stall on fire. That should get your PCs moving!

In “Unusual Stalls,” we see a few ideas to spice up the wares available in your typical market. Why not find a tobacconist with flair? Sefry’s Smokes offers cigars and pipeweed in a variety of flavors and fragrances. Or perhaps you have a bard in your party looking for new music? Check out the sheet music at Duly Noted where Tavon McGillicutty is ready to play his wares to make them that much more irresistible. The Potent Portraits stall with Gardina Lefeure as the artist available to paint your picture has a nice twist that reminds me slightly of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde… There are plenty of unique stalls described to use immediately or inspire you to create your own.

And lastly we have “Food Vendors” willing to offer you a variety of tasty morsels to fill your belly. And while you shop, you might engage the proprietors in a bit of gossip-mongering to learn what’s going on in town! Just ask Sarah Greenbrier about royal gossip as you purchase a muffin or two (check out the rum muffins!). Or maybe you want something a bit more meaty? Check out Ichabob Manchu’s wild boar and carrots! Not only does he probably hunt his own boar, but he knows all the best scouts and guides are waiting to be hired for the right price.

City Slices 1: Marketplace Fun really has quite a selection of juicy tidbits to flesh out and excite the most boring of marketplaces. Even if you don’t use the people or places directly, there’s plenty of material to spur you on to creating your own unique stalls, vendors, and items in the marketplace of your choice.

Where the book falls down a bit is with organization and layout. Though the book has a table of contents and an index, both are poorly formatted and need help to be more useful. Instead of putting the TOC in a table, even just a high-level list of chapters and page numbers would have worked. Same for the Index, which is also put into a table. Most word processors allow formatting a particular page to use two or more columns. That would have eliminated the need for a second page of the index.

That said, I think the art is better in this book than in Baba Yaga: Queen of the Wicked Fens, with more stock photographs and less duplication of individual pieces. And I love the way the cover is sliced with images interlaced between the separated chunks of the whole. Very imaginative and a great way to tie the series together graphically.

The TOC and Index aside, I think City Slices 1: Marketplace Fun offers plenty of great content for GMs to use right away in their campaigns. I am left looking forward to whatever is next in the City Slices series from William Pfaff and Escape Velocity Gaming! Be sure to check it out at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. And be sure to check out Escape Velocity’s other products as well as their website.

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