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Reviews - Town
by Demian Katz

Town coverTown (2010)
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 examples.

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.


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