There are a LOT of city books out there. Some of them, like Castles and Crusades' Town of Kalas are small, but captivating. Some of them are just freaking huge. Some of them are both huge AND good, like Ptolus. Good city settings make the local the center of adventure rather than just a location where a single adventure might happen or where the players rest up between adventures elsewhere. The very best city settings avoid what I like to think of as the "blunt object syndrome" wherein the author has crafted a city so intricate, with plots and antagonists so well defined, that the player characters' only role is perfunctory. In these settings the PCs either become the instrument by which one of the factions smashes one of the others, or they become their own tool of destruction: bashing up against all the various factions without ever truly engaging with them.
Parsantium, I feel, takes a place among the very best city settings. Author Richard Green takes our own historic Byzantium and overlays a number of fantasy lenses to create a vibrant, multicultural playground. The city has a detailed history of different cultural influences which all shine through in both the various quarters of the city, especially where one series of conquerors has settled in an area that was the center of leadership for a previous culture. Analogs of the Mediterranean/European tradition rub elbows with significant and meaningful cultures of middle eastern, Indian, Slavic, and Chinese extraction. In addition, fantasy races are added to the mix, with varying degrees of success (and which I will discuss in more depth farther down).
The book weighs in at 175 pages, but they are packed with good ideas. This is nominally a Pathfinder product, but the author promises minimal stats and delivers. Each NPC stat is a single line consisting of alignment, race, class, and level number. There are no prestige classes or other special crunch to bloat the page count meaning that what we have is an entire book of usable world building material. Now strictly, this might be a negative for its usability as a Pathfinder product. Since I do not play Pathfinder, however, that makes adapting the material to whatever system I do wish to use that much easier.
The simple two column layout presents the city first as a whole, and then by quarter. The descriptions evoke feelings of a city that has lasted for millennium, and that the evidence of such is present everywhere around the characters. From the colossus in the merchant quarter to the description of how the current residents of one quarter have adapted the structures of the previous tenants, there are details both subtle and obvious, that make this setting unlike anything that the players are likely to have experienced before.
The beauty of the setting is that all the things you expect to find in a fantasy city are there, just given a fresh twist. The various cultural pantheons, for example, take their cues from real world religions, with the Aqrani (middle eastern) culture worshiping a single god, while the Bathuran (Roman) rulers have a full pantheon of gods, although many of them are given mere lip service. Green does a good job even of naming the gods in such a way that they feel familiar, yet still exotic. The Bathuran goddess of Love is named Cytherea, a name associated with a cult of Aphrodite in our own world.
There are thugs, and cults, and corrupt officials, and kindly patrons in Parsantium just like in most of the other good city settings. Where Parsantium really shines is in showing you ways to interact with all of these various people in ways that are not always earth shattering. To be sure, Parsantium offers storylines with big impact, but it also allows for, and encourages, smaller stories to unfold, the kind I prefer to craft with my players.
If there is a weakness in the game it is the sometimes clumsy inclusion of the traditional fantasy races into the game. Where the human races are rich in depth, many of the fantasy races look and feel the same in this world as in any other. There are notable exceptions: One small faction to the north of the city is a rampaging nomadic tribe of centaurs that seem to be Mongolesque and a strong army of Gnolls that sacked the city and occupied it in the recent past. Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and Gnomes are present in name and deed that make them seemigly no different than if they were in any other fantasy world. When the leader of your nation is named Corandias and there is a hobgoblin bard roaming around that answers to Theoderic, I would think that the local halfling baker could have a name more original than Flourfingers.* I am sure that the inclusion of all the fantasy races is a nod to the Pathfinder tie in, but in a land this exotic I do not really see a need for Tieflings and Dragonmen. Or even Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Gnomes for that matter. Why can't the tinkerer be an Aqrani? Or the brewer be of non-Dwarf extraction? Before playing in this world, I would certainly want to discuss this particular wrinkle with the players and see how they would like to proceed.
Unlike most of the entries that I plan to make this month, I am not presenting a specific campaign for Parsantium. It has so much potential, that I want to show it off to anyone who might like to play in this world, but would rather find out what the players would want to encounter in the world before I created too much material. Given the divergent cultures, what would work for a group made up of a singe racial extraction might be a poor game for a mixed group. At the end of the month, however, I plan to present a campaign conceit that will work for a variety of game settings, and would mesh very well with Parsantium.
* This sort of naming convention is a problem for much of Fantasy Gaming and is therefore not strictly a Parsantim issue. The concept of naming fantasy races with some compound name of either adjective-noun or (worse) noun-noun variety is lazy. It takes NO thought whatsoever to slap a couple of words together and call it a name. Worse, when I see (as I have) a Dwarf named Rockhammer, I don't think Dwarf, I think Flintsones. The idea that any self-respecting halfling family would name themselves the Cherryberries is ludicrous.