"City Guide: Coffer of Coins," Dark Quest Games

First published 9/19/2002; last edited 1/5/2005; published to the reviews blog 2/13/2007

Pros: Detailed descriptions; useful items; inexpensive
Cons: Lack of variety; lack of NPC and story material
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

“City Guide: Coffer of Coins” is a fantasy setting resource for game masters using the D20 system. It would be appropriate for use with games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The book is advertised as exploring the adventure to be found in shops and their owners. After a short introduction, each chapter presents a different store. The write-ups are quite thorough, including a description of the grounds, boxed text for reading during game, and full information on affiliated NPCs, including game statistics. Thirteen businesses are included in all.

Book-Spanning Themes

Some development decisions affected the whole of the book. The one that surprised me most was the inclusion of boxed text in the store descriptions. (Boxed text is supposed to be read verbatim to the players to describe a location.) At first, this seemd like a good way to ensure that authors provided concrete description about each shop. By half way through the book, I’d reversed my decision. Much of the detail just isn’t necessary to support the role these stores are likely to play in most games. Is a good description of the premises essential for the game master? Yes. Must it be verbatim? Or put another way, do I care that a meaty smell is coming from a cauldron in the back room? No. That’s the kind of detail a game master can provide on his or her own. Or worse yet, will that same meaty smell be there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, under all circumstances? A module can get away with these kinds of descriptions because the assumption is that the players are going through once. These city setting locations will be revisited over and over.

I harp on the box text, but the underlying problem shows up in the book in other ways as well. The extravagant physical descriptions of the store owners include even minute details of their clothing — which, one would hope, they might change now and then. Again, the problem is that this is not a module. These stores and their personnel are meant, I would hope, to figure into ongoing intrigue and adventures, meaning that they’ll appear in game more than just once, unlike rooms in a dungeon-crawl module.

A decision that I heartily applaud is the inclusion in most of the store write-ups of a plot idea section, called “Character Hooks or Stories” or “Plothooks,” depending on the chapter. In a book that provides background and setting, a long list of short adventure seeds is a fantastic resource for a gamemaster. Many of these ideas lead to adventures that are amenable to improvisation. A game master could grab one when stumped for a plot for the night and run with it. I just wish there were more of them.

Layout and artwork decisions are consistent throughout the book. I liked the art; the sketches were all on topic with the store and NPC descriptions around them, and the solidly above average quality of the work was nice to see after seeing so many other D20 supplements filled with line art generously described as an afterthought.

Individual Stores

The quality of writing for the chapters describing the businesses varied. There are no major inconsistencies (possibly with the exception of Andora, see below). All of the characters and businesses are believable. Abundant details carry across the flavor of the people and places in the city guide. I had no trouble imagining each place and the people in it. In these respects, the mechanical aspects of the writing were quite good. However, storefronts are a familiar part of the fantasy genre, and in many places I had to wade through long passages of very well-known ideas to get to the novel material.

The introduction is a short story involving one of the shopkeepers of the city. Sadly, the character with one of the most interesting backstories (Davin Loxeley, not to be confused with Melvick Davin, the halfling proprietor featured later) does not appear later in the book. The use of the character Andora, who is a store owner featured later, is wanting as well. In one part of the story Andora chases a thief half way across the town to recover a stolen wallet; in the next she’s limp, helpless, and waiting to be rescued. I guess she was having an off day.

A Circle of Stones describes a gem merchant’s shop, including the proprietor, Orthan, and his apprentice. It could have been a shorter write-up, though the extra information on the owner’s defenses and room-by-room descriptions might be useful if the party plans to rob the store. Orthan is a wizard as well as a lapidary, and I did like the secret involving his ability to create potent magical items. A number of plots could come from it.

Affordable Notions is a smithy for less expensive metals, such as brass and copper, and has less to offer a game master looking for plot material. The owner, Drottor, has a vibrant personality, but I didn’t find anything that a creative GM couldn’t have whipped up while improvising. And ultimately, the expectation this book set up for me was more of a collection of stores and NPCs ready to be the center of (or at least involved in) an adventure than just a catalog of unremarkable shops.

Overflowing Cheer sells gem encrusted drinking vessels. I could lodge the same familiar complaint that not enough in the way of plot hooks are provided with this write-up, but I’m just overwhelmed by the idea of a store selling bejeweled cups. The descriptions of the goblets, even without the magical effects, really give a feel for the beauty with which they can be endowed. It’s a unique enough location that I’d be happy to do a little extra work to weave it into a campaign.

The Smithing Guild was a natural choice for inclusion. One expects that the makers of iron goods would hold a position of influence and authority. Nonetheless, I couldn’t get excited over the lists of prices to buy materials, licenses, or time using a rented smithy. These aren’t the facets of the guild that lead to adventure, intrigue, backstabbing, betrayal, and unlikely alliances. What kind of people really influence guild policy? Is it above-board or corrupt? How are its edicts enforced? Is this enforcement fair or unfair, peaceful or violent, public or kept confidential? I didn’t really get satisfactory answers to these questions.

Kearik Stonetear’s Gems and the Strongaxe Silversmithery made little enough impression on me that I might as well lump them together. Even the plot hooks section for Kearik’s store reads like a template of plots applicable to any store, focusing on missing important customers or accusations of theft. Gunder Strongaxe’s store description is so predominantly given to overwrought boxed text that there’s little to work into a game from the store besides the price list.

By this point in the book, every entry I’d read was either a merchant who works with gems and jewelry or one who works with metal of some kind (or both). Seeing the title, Smith of Rare Metals, yet another smithy, made me want to introduce plastic in my next fantasy game as a magically light and strong material. It would’ve been nice to see the similarity broken up by now with something like a furrier or a spice shop. However, the entry does have some high points. There’s still not a high plot density here, but if you’re looking for something new and unexpected to throw at your players, introducing some of the magical metals described in this chapter may be helpful.

Andora’s Quality Inlays was perhaps the most personally frustrating entry in the book for me. Andora is actually quite an original character. The business of inlaying metals (particularly weapons), is not something I would’ve come up with on my own. (So this is where all the damascened swords of mystical power got their patterning added!) Andora herself comes from an interesting background, orphaned when her parents died in a fire. I can even forgive the physical description of her which seemed written by a lovelorn admirer. But every one of the plots attached to her involves setting her up as a damsel in distress, possibly even as a love-interest. It’s really one plot idea with variations, and it’s an old plot. To take the cliche out of my head, I may have to add her to my campaign with a night job, moonlighting as an assassin or crime lord. I did mention that this distressed damsel chased a thief down in a crowded city to get a few coins back according to the introductory story, right?

The good news is that if you make it through to Beads and Prayers, you’re in for a treat. The shop sells every manner of religious paraphernalia, yet the owner himself displays no particular affiliation. The proprietor goes out of his way not to alienate any faiths, as they’re potential customers. The possibilities behind this shop are endless. Melvick could have any of hundreds of agendas, innocuous or malevolent. He may be accused of heresy, targeted by zealots who don’t approve of his store layout, or even be an evil cultist selling tainted wares on the sly. He can be as much or as little of a mystery as the GM wants. This is, I think, my favorite chapter of them all.

The Sargasso Ring Emporium is another nice piece of work. Although the description of the store doesn’t stand out, the tension between the brother and sister who operate the store is fantastic: one is an aspiring wizard and the other is thaumaphobic. To be fair, some of the specific items described are quite impressive as well, but when I’m looking for material I can use in a game, specific items are second to backstories, plots, and NPCs. If you want original ideas for items (magical and not) in unique shapes, sizes, and materials, you’ll get even more out of the emporium (and probably the rest of the book) than I did.

Crecmair Fine Pewterware is a mixed bag. I like the relationships between the family members. Crecmair’s apprentice and his daughter are in love. His wife approves, though Crecmair himself doesn’t. To add to the family’s stress, strange things keep happening around one of the children and the family business isn’t doing too well. It’s nice to see a business included in the supplement that isn’t at the forefront of its field. To some extent, all of these story elements are time-honored enough to have dust on them. Whether you find this write-up to be a cliche or full of opportunities depends on how much mileage you think you can get out of the combination of the family’s troubles.

Uriel’s Usuries was a welcome change of pace because it was one of the few service oriented business listed in the book. (The guild was another, and Andora’s shop could be considered either depending on whether she’s selling her own or doing a job using a customer-supplied blade.) In addition to traditional banking functions such as loans and moneychanging, Uriel’s shop also offers a service to pawn items, which is a welcome addition to the types of transactions available to fantasy setting characters. A great deal of the write-up is spent describing the services that her establishment provides, including detailed information on rates and terms. Given the uniqueness of the business type, I would’ve liked to have seen more done with available plots using that business.

Although I think too much attention is paid to the physical description of the grounds, Karapan Ringsmith undeniably provides plenty of possible adventure hooks. Karapan has something of an eventful past in his own adventuring days. Much of that background leaves open issues that could come back to haunt him and any PC party that happens to be nearby. The text does a good job of supplying possible story ideas. As for the thorough description of the elaborate procedures Karapan takes to safeguard his privacy, I could take it or leave it.

Making Payroll

In the final analysis, I think that Coffer of Coins has a lot going for it, being a five dollar supplement distributed electronically. Unlike many D20 products that are riddled with editorial oversights and don’t hold together with any sort of self-consistency, Coffer of Coins avoids the big pitfalls. Maybe the editorial quality could have been a little better. In some places they were using words for what sounded like entirely original meanings.

Looking back over the list of entries, there’s another problem I had with the book. According to the description of the book, it covers merchants and commerce in cities. Of the 13 stores listed, 11 involve metalsmithing or work with gems and jewelry. Only 2, Beads and Prayers and Uriel’s Usury involve other types of business. Where are the fine tailors selling expensive clothing? Where is the cartographer selling treasure maps? Where is the library or book shop, which must certainly be a rarity only supported in large cities in a fantasy campaign? What about other service businesses, like scribeners or legal counsel for when the party inevitably runs afoul of the complex and unusual local legal code? Why are there no merchants selling exotic spices, herbal remedies, or even prepared meals you just can’t get in a local tavern? What about a horse trader? All these things are missing in favor of smiths of every conceivable metal. In short, this book has a fairly narrow range for the topic it proposes to cover.

The greatest challenge for a supplement of this type is overcoming the traditional role of merchants and stores in D&D as largely faceless and uninteresting. If you want unique items (and new magical items) to add to your game, or if you want to have very detailed descriptions of shop layouts and procedures, you will find this book even more enticing than I did. If, like me, you would rather have less direct physical detail in favor or more complex and intricate NPC backgrounds and plot ideas, the book is slow in some places with bright spots in others. If you are looking for a swashbuckling adrenaline rush and armed cultists under the floorboards, you should probably seek another supplement altogether. On a positive note, the book is sold as a downloadable file, so even if you only end up using a few of the write-ups, you’re only spending about five dollars to get them.

Now for the scores…

For packaging, I think Dark Quest Games did well. The downloadable form of the book saves them printing costs and makes it possible to reprint any pages that get damaged by heavy use. Inspiration took a few hits. There were few blatantly bad ideas in the book, but many of the chapters were unremarkable with respect to what I wanted from a book like this. The nuts and bolts score sufferend the most. I think the book would have been better off if the space devoted to verbatim descriptions and long physical descriptions of NPCs had been used to generate more plot ideas or to fill the background of the NPCs with plot hooks. And there definitely should’ve either been a wider range of businesses represented, or the book should’ve been marketed as dealing specifically with smiths and jewelers. If you want a book that has fewer ideas and is more ready to run out of the box, then consider that my nuts and bolts score will be lower than what you might give it.

Packaging: 8 out of ten
Inspiration: 5 out of ten
Nuts and Bolts: 3 out of ten

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