City of Clocks Review
City of Clocks (CoC in the following) is a systemless industrial fantasy setting. I am reviewing the .pdf version.
The physical thing
The document is 176 pages of text and black & white illustrations. It loads and reads well off my small off-brand e-reader (with e-paper), as well as off my clanking old laptop. It feels as though it is made with the reader in mind. The editing seems to be pretty good, and I've not found any errors worth noting.
There is no index, but the table of contents is very good and thorough.
The art is mostly characters, with very few representations of the city itself. It would have been nice to have examples of buildings, streets and shops, but it is really a very minor complaint. The character art is very good in that it feels like representations of actual people. The characters have character I guess you might say.
The setting starts with a history chapter, or to be more specific a mythology chapter gradually becoming history. The mythology, or creation story is quickly done away with, and mostly consists of generations of god-like beings betraying their creators/parents. This happens three times by my count, and when we came to the humans and other species overthrowing the Luminaries (self-made demigods) I was smiling a bit. The Luminaries created the original city of clocks, and their legacy is many undiscovered or ill-understood secrets, among which are the Incarnae, humans with great powers. The rest of the mytpothological bits seem to be of little import to the setting.
The human history on the other hand is full of neat tidbits and conflicts. Clashes between religions and between patricians and plebs gradually turn a democracy into an oligarchy and a police state. Along the way we are introduced to merchants, nobles and even an economist, all of whom have shaped the city through good and bad times.
The writing is a bit dry, but I see that as a good thing. It never becomes self-indulgent and overly florid, but gives the reader a ton of well-sketched ideas to build on. It comes across as potential and not a straitjacket.
The second chapter is a primer of sorts. 'What every citizen should know', you might say. The chapter is short but sweet. It tells you abut the species: constructs (sapient androids built long ago by and ancient species), Geks (a man-sized ant with four legs and two arms, centaur-style) and Sentenni (long-lived near-humans with and alien culture).
There is a section on technology, describing firearms, walkers and airships powered by 'ice', which is primordial chaos in frozen form. It is thus neither steam-driven nor clockwork, and the aesthetic does not seem to be terribly 'steampunk' either.
There are articles on law enforcement, class, family, timekeeping and architecture. The information is ample, yet kept fairly brief. There is a modular feel too it as well. It's there if it is needed, but it's not the sort of thing a GM or player will need to memorize.
Chapter three contains maps of the city, as well as a neighborhood-by-neighborhood guide to the city. It is clearly written and easy to reference via the table of contents and the maps.
Here's where I'm reminded by Over The Edge and its setting Al Amaja. It feels like a densely populated and bustling place where interesting things are happening in every corner. Here's a patrician's mansion full of mysteries, a run-down clockwork amusement park where nightmares emerge from the ground, Sentenni ghettos (and there is an amusing reason for why that word is used in-setting), crime-ridden tenements and pubs where the resistance buy their guns. There are many story-seeds in the City of Clocks.
The City is full of power groups, city-wide institutions and conspiracies, and they're the topic of this chapter. Each group has its own potted history, a description of their power base, as well as people of importance within the group. There are some very evocative 'head shot' illustrations of these people (and constructs, ant-people etc).
In this chapter one finds the low-down on the Clergy (the powerful church), the Cabal (a mysterious secret society going through an internal conflict), the Emotes (artists and sybarites, reminiscent of Planescape's Sensates), the Soldat (a fraternity of law men and soldiers), as well as farmers, librarians and capitalists.
This chapter is chockful of intrigue, mystery and conflict. There's enough here for a bunch of long campaigns of action and politics.
Chapter five deals with the nine noble houses who influence much in the City. This chapter is structured in the same way as the previous one, but it makes sense to to have the Houses in a seperate chapter, since their power is so pervasive and well-consolidated.
The Houses are (with one exception) families, each with their eligible bachelors, senile patriarchs and black sheep.
A very short chapter dealing with the Incarnae, humans who have been endowed with the ability to manipulate reality. Some are servants of the City's parliament, while many others have shrugged off their conditioning and rebelled. Incarnae have powers based in an archetypal or ideal version of themselves. A soldier wil thus be THE soldier and so forth.
The Incarnae and their powers are not fully understood, as the process of creating them is invented bu the Luminaries.
The final chapter deals with the secrets of the Luminaries (the species of City-building demigods described in chapter 1), their influence, the threat they pose, and how to use them in a game. They ARE an ancient evil, but there is nothing Lovecraftian about them. That may be a comfort to some.
So, what can you do with all this? Well, the setting does not assume that players take on specific roles. It's easy to come up with pitches for a campaign or scenario.
Legal advocates fighting for truth in a system which favors the powerful and well-connected (something like the BBC series Garrow's Law). Uses a version of Gumshoe.
Incarnae as flawed supers in league with the underground resistance. Uses ICONS (or whichever supers-system you like).
Brutal slice-of-life drama in a bustling fantasy City (using the rules of In A Wicked Age, but you have to create an Oracle for that).
Gritty crime drama where Civil Enforcement officers must navigate between cutthroat crooks and entitled patricians. (Uses the free MiniSix, 'cos I like it).
The fact that the setting is systemless gives a great deal of freedom to play around with the various groups in the setting and the various systems on your shelves.