Review: Ptolus – Monte Cook’s City by the Spire

Ptolus: Monte Cook’s City by the Spire re-released and updated for
Dungeons & Dragons 5E & Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System

Whether you agree or disagree, the longer you find yourself in this hobby, the more likely you are to run across things that are considered cultural icons.  Products that have influenced so many people that they almost take on a life of their own.  The very first one of these that comes to mind for me is the Tomb of Horrors, the classic dungeon grinder written by E. Gary Gygax himself.  Many of these icons are found in the “old” properties simply because they have been around the longest.  Other examples include the Descent into the Depths of the Earth series of adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, the pair of Harlequin adventures for Shadowrun (Harlequin and Harlequin’s Back), or the Darkstryder campaign for West End Games’ Star Wars.

We look today at another one of these: Monte Cook’s Ptolus: City by the Spire.  It has begun fulfilling for those who backed it’s recent re-release Kickstarter.  For those that don’t know, Ptolus was the original Dungeons & Dragons 3E Playtest campaign and was actually two campaigns run for several of the staff from what became Wizards of the Coast.  There were several crossovers between the two campaigns and it included many luminaries that are now well-recognized names in the industry (and several of them now work at Monte Cook Games).  The campaign was set inside a massive city, Ptolus, in the world Monte had used for his home game in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2E, Praemal.  It was billed as D&D “turned up to 11”, where all of the aspects and races and things that made D&D feel like D&D existed in close proximity to each other and  were common so that they all could be tested out easily as they prepared 3E for general release (which occurred in the year 2000).

Manufacturing and Quality

While I have had absolutely no complaints about the production quality of Monte Cook Games product offerings in the past, I will not lie.  This one worried me.  Books like Numenera Destiny and Discovery, and even the Revised Cypher System Rulebook were in what I would call the “normal” band of page counts for core rulebooks (325 – 450 pages or so for a thorough treatment).  Ptolus, however, clocks in at a massive 674 pages.  With that much weight in the pages, I was concerned that the binding might be weak in the spine near the top.  So far, however, I have not seen signs of that occurring.  The book comes with three ribbon bookmarks for use in easy referencing, and is excellent quality paper with good ink adhesion for page use. The cover is even textured to feel like dragon scale, a nice aesthetic touch. Additionally, Ptolus comes with a packet of extras including maps, player handouts, GM aids and other goodies. We laminated our first set and will be leaving our second untouched.

Another unique thing that they did and this is something that I imagine took quite a bit of doing, was to keep the page count and contents consistent between the two editions (5E and Cypher).  The obvious reason for this is that they have additional adventures coming out in the near future and if I understand correctly, they will be released as a single product covering two systems.  It is much easier to do that and get the cross-book references correct if there is only one page number to reference instead of two at every reference point.  Additionally, doing it that way makes it so people that have different versions can still talk about the content of Ptolus easily even if the mechanical substance parts are slightly different.

Content

There is literally no way I can distill down what is in this book to a few paragraphs and do it justice, so I’m going to hit the highlights and the things that I personally am glad they included, and hope that intrigues you enough.  The first section of Ptolus is an overview that actually comes in a free PDF version called the Player’s Guide to Ptolus.  This section contains brief overviews of some of the things in the rest of the book such as: some of the history of Ptolus and Praemal, some of the organizations and important individuals that you can find in the city, a little bit about the world of Praemal at large, and some guidance for creating characters in Ptolus along with some basic “truths” that PCs would know about their world.

The next section is a detailed background about the world, the cosmology, and species and history, with a much more detailed look at the organizations and power players.  As one who typically starts out preparing a campaign looking at power players and organizations specifically, the detail offered here makes me incredibly happy.  Following that are three sections detailing geography in the City of Ptolus itself.  359 pages of detailed information about keyed locations in the city and on other maps in the Ptolus “package”.

The next section is a deep dive into the “feel” of Ptolus and what it is like to live there.  It covers what it looks like as an everyday resident, as a Delver (or adventurer), crime and how order is maintained in a city as vast as Ptolus, and treatments of the level of advanced technology that can be found there as well as the mysterious items known as Chaositech and their origins, benefits, and dangers.

The next section is a huge chunk of information and advice for the Ptolus gamemaster on running a city campaign (which can be easily adapted to other, non-Ptolus city settings – either homebrew or published such as Green Ronin’s Freeport).  It also includes four adventures and three interludes to get new players and GMs started in Ptolus with a recommended adventure path leading into set-pieces in other areas of the book as well as published products that are going to be re-released (and converted to 5E and Cypher) as part of the Kickstarter such as The Night of Dissolution or the Banewarrens.  It also contains some Ptolus-specific monsters as well as some additional rules for new types of magic and some character options (5E subclasses or Cypher Foci).  Finally, a thick appendix adds all sorts of helps and references to access some of the more detailed bits of information that can be found in this massive tome (“Where can I find that one NPC in here again…?”).

The other huge thing I noticed on my read-thru of this massive tome was the work that went into the sidebar notes.  Not only is there additional information like NPC stats or page cross references, there are periodically notes about Monte’s Ptolus campaigns that give some insight into design and potential ways a campaign could go.  I am a sucker for personal anecdotes like this (I have been ever since the annotated versions of Dragonlance: Chronicles and Dragonlance: Legends), and I find them an extremely worthwhile inclusion.  That is, however, obviously my personal opinion and others may not get the same mileage out of them that I do.

Critique

How do I even critique something like Ptolus?  Obviously, since I was not on the team, I am not privy to everything, however, knowing some of the members of that team and reading in between the lines of some of their social media posts, I know the absurd amount of detail work and effort that went into producing not one, but two tomes this size even if a lot of the content is identical.  And about the only thing that I could offer by way of suggestion of improvement is to include an entirely different product.

What do I mean by that?

Between when the Ptolus Kickstarter occurred and when this book was fulfilled, Monte Cook Games managed another Kickstarter for a product called the Darkest House.  An entirely digital product, the Darkest House is designed from the ground up to be an online gaming experience with maps and detail and artwork all hyperlinked in such a way that it is easily navigable and shareable with one’s players via links on any digital tabletop platform.  Ptolus would be another perfect candidate for such a treatment.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away known as… Wisconsin), TSR, the former owners of Dungeons & Dragons prior to its purchase by Wizards of the Coast, put out a product for their flagship campaign setting, the Forgotten Realms, called the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas.  The project linked overland maps of Abeir-Toril (the world on which the Forgotten Realms was set) down through city maps to individual building maps or dungeon maps from individual products that they sold.  It was an incredibly handy product.  Ptolus would benefit from such a product.  Imagine: A map of Praemal, linking to Ptolus (and any other old maps that Monte has and wants to release from his 2E campaign), which then drives down to the maps in the books in digital format.  Included are pins with the entries from the keyed locations sections of the Ptolus books with all the information there, along with sidebar information such as NPC names and any required “stat blocks”.  All of that at a Ptolus GMs fingertips with a click of a mouse button or two.

Yes, it’s a huge undertaking.  But a lot of it has been done already in the form of creation.  The rest would be putting it into an Atom application and having appropriate links to the MCG server (or better, a downloadable master that provides notification of updates that can be stored on a local computer so that no internet connection is required – a physical table aid as well as an online game aid).

The bottom line being this: I don’t really have any suggestions to make Ptolus “better”, so perhaps we can make it more accessible and use-friendly.

Summary

Ptolus is a beast of a product.  It was a huge Kickstarter with lots of add-ons that I am itching to get my hands on.  For fantasy-lovers and those who have been in the hobby long enough to remember many of the older edition D&D products, the previous version of Ptolus, by Malhavoc Press, remains a collector’s item.  There were not many made.  And while you can still get it as a print-on-demand book, it simply is not the same quality.  Yes, the book carries a $150 price tag.  But the question is more: is what you get worth $150?  In my estimation, for this product, the answer is yes.  Ptolus has enough content that you can reasonably run years of campaign through the information in this book.  Dividing $150 over that kind of time frame puts the fun per dollar amount in a better perspective.  I do not know how many books that MCG purchased or if they will do a reprint if they run out.  If I were a fantasy-lover and wanted highly developed resources to run my players through that would support pretty much any plot that I threw at it, Ptolus would be at the top of my list to pick up.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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