by Demian Katz
Published by Cumberland Games & Diversions
Written by Lisa J. Steele
Edited by Alan Wilkins
Original Images by S. John Ross
Original City Plans by Jonathan Turner
150-page PDF file.
It's been a very long time since I last encountered Cumberland Games'
All-Systems Library (with 2001's Points in
Space Volume 1: Starport Locations), but I am happy to see the
line is still running. The idea of producing completely system-agnostic
sourcebooks on a broad range of subjects is a good one, and Cumberland
Games has a history of putting real depth and care into their products.
Thus, while the historically-based Town is a long way from its
science fiction predecessor in terms of content, it is quite close in
terms of attention to detail and usefulness.
Town follows the author's earlier Fief (which covered
small land-holdings in 9th- to 11th-century England and France) by
focusing on large towns in 13th- to 15th-century Europe. Major themes
of the period from architecture and education to disaster and warfare
are addressed, and a lot of space is devoted to explaining the complex
interactions between guilds, religious organizations, governments and
the independent-minded cities themselves that gave medieval urban life a
distinctly different flavor than its modern equivalent. Though of
obvious value to gamers running historical, time-travel or fantasy
adventures, the product's gaming orientation is rarely made explicit
– it's a thoroughly-researched social history that just happens to
be sold under a role-playing label.
The bulk of Town is split up into thematic chapters explaining
major themes like Agriculture, Commerce or Governance. Every chapter is
further subdivided into sections about specific topics related to the
theme at hand, and many topics are illustrated with specific, real-life
examples highlighting both typical instances of the subject at hand and
notable exceptions. For example, when discussing the (surprisingly
liberated) role of women in medieval town life, the book cites many of
the careers and investment options available to women throughout Europe
while also pointing out that Florence was exceptionally restrictive of
women's rights. This "trends and exceptions" approach is effective both
at underlining the subjects at hand and for sparking campaign ideas. Of
further value to the gaming audience is the book's heavy use of charts
and tables filled with representative data on such topics as population
sizes, building costs, salaries and fines, collected from a range of
time periods and localities. Though not as precise or comprehensive as
the data you would find in a fictional campaign setting, these
real-world facts are still useful to the GM and are clearly the result
of an impressive amount of research.
The book covers a lot of ground, some of it surprising. For example, a
fair amount of space is given to discussing the environmental impact of
early cities, a topic of interest to the modern reader but not
necessarily well documented at the time. The role of Jewish communities
in Christian-dominated Europe is also discussed at considerable length,
and this certainly has gaming potential; Muslims are given significantly
less space, mainly due to a smaller presence in the region. The only
omission that surprised me was the game's total lack of coverage of
gaming – while the chapter on entertainment gives space to feasts,
festivals, executions and even prostitution, no games are mentioned. In
a product aimed at gamers, I would have expected at least a small
section describing abstract strategy and gambling games of the era. If
you are curious about whether your own favorite topic gets covered, you
have an opportunity to check before you commit to buying the product;
the free sample on Cumberland Games'
website includes the full index and table of contents.
Following its thematic chapters, Town includes a five-page
timeline that runs from 410 to 1499, mostly covering key disasters
(plagues, massacres, battles) that might form the basis of an adventure.
After this, the book provides three appendices that each focus on a
single location, providing a basic map and explaining how the topics
covered by the main portion of the book specifically apply to that city.
Paris, Venice and York each get in-depth coverage, making this book
even more valuable if you are interested in gaming in one of those
areas. The volume is rounded out with a helpful glossary, a lengthy
bibliography and a decent index.
Town is presented in a clean, two-column layout illustrated
primarily with period artwork. The quality of the copy editing is
excellent, with very few typos or other obvious errors, and as mentioned
already, an index is provided. My biggest criticism of the book is
simply that the writing is a bit dry. If you are interested in the
subject matter, you'll have no trouble reading the book... but if
you're not that interested, it doesn't go out of its way to grab you.
I'm not a huge history buff, so I found some parts of the book to be
rather slow going. The dreaded "names, places and dates" approach to
history isn't always avoided. Still, in spite of some slow patches, I
did find much of the book quite interesting thanks to its effective
presentation of broad themes and its frequent use of intriguing
Town is definitely not for everyone, though it may be able to
reach a broader audience than many gaming products. While its
usefulness to gamers is significant, it also serves as a reasonably
accessible history of medieval life that could very well appeal to
readers with absolutely no interest in gaming. It may not be the most
compellingly written treatise on the subject, but it's an impressive
piece of scholarship as well as a solid gaming sourcebook, and it's
worth a look if its subject matter intrigues you.