Harald recently started running a Mystara campaign for us. At the end of the first session we reached a major city in the setting. On Google+ he asked: how to give Karameikos' Specularum the Vornheim treatment.
Here’s what I said:
I felt unable to use Vornheim the book at my table. The only things that made it into my game were cool ideas that don't need much text to explain: snakes are books; a library with a hydra that needs beheading for regular reading; gorgons in power.
The things I didn’t care for: long lists of random stuff to encounter, room by room descriptions of something, shortcuts to create maps of roads and buildings, drop die charts for guards, AC, hp, all that stuff.
Thus, my first suggestion is to brainstorm weird ideas with friends and write them all down. Each idea gets no more than three or four sentences or lines. Put it on a wiki. Once you have 100 of them, let it sit for a while, then whittle it down. Aim for twenty awesome and unusual things that people (and you) will read in ten seconds and remember for a year. Pick three to use in your city when the party gets there first. Maybe add more stuff later, or use it for different cities.
Romans and Crucifiction
If you want Thyatis to be harsh, have the road to the city pass by twenty or thirty crucified bandits. Some of them alive? These bandits are whipped and crucified and left to die, but at night the authorities expect friends of the punished to take them down and whisk them away (ie. they are de facto exiled).
The man in charge is Alexander Suworow. He has a separate post from the executioner because only non-nobles can be crucified. The current arrangement allowing the crucified to be taken down sits well with him. If you need to know about bandits, talk to him. He has lists of those who were punished and where they are from, so in an emergency you might find relatives of bandits with Suworow’s help.
Elven Pleasure Palace
Stefan Karameikos maintains a company of elves somewhere. How many? Where exactly? Perhaps they have a built themselves an elven pleasure palace, a sylvan oasis, a locked park, protected by phantasmal forces.
Little Johnny has disappeared. Asking his friends reveals that he’s had the reputation of having been in every garden of the city. He is now lost in the elven pleasure palace.
Tayha’a, the one-legged elven green keeper, says he has found nobody.
- he’s telling the truth; the kid has been be kidnapped by the Rapier’s Revenge thieves guild who say that the boy is in fact the child of a Danakian noble that was smuggled abroad in secrecy – they are keeping him safe; alternatively you could pay them to hire some invisible guards (extortion)
- the sylvan paradise also houses some terrible monsters (ravenous tree stumps with shark teeth attracting little boys with white bunnies at the end of nigh invisible tentacles)
- an elven cabal of shadow spies has been smuggling a branch of the tree of life to Specularum in the attempt to send it across the ocean by ship; the little boy witnessed this and was taken in by the shadow elven master spy Akrah Fivestars (he didn’t want to kill the boy but didn’t want to leave witnesses either).
- Melnibonéan: people disappear at night and end up dying the death of a thousand cuts. Once you find the dead boy, the symbols cut into his soft skin leaves no doubt: elves! But how will you convince captain Bereon Thistlewind of the presence of vile monsters in his ranks? He won’t even speak to you without an invitation, let alone come and look at this “evidence” of yours. And the blood-drinking Ichthyol Sea-Of-Roses has friends all over the elven offices.
- the elven garden has attracted the attention of a dream-eater, a beautiful, floating giraffe-elefant-peacock-zebra spirit that decided out of the kindness of its heart to build a little conduit between the garden and the outer Beastlands for the mutual enjoyment of all; too bad the little boy lost himself in the Beastlands and needs to be followed.
- the boy was cruel and when he started ripping off pixie wings, they started to reconfigure him China Miéville-style; his torso has been sewn on to little monkey legs and big, limping butterfly wings too heavy for our gravity have been attached to his back; these he drags through the hedges, crying as a thousand thorns cut into this useless wings, crying as the wings prevent him from sleeping, crying as curious animals passing him by step on them, and yet he is too weak to get far on his bent monkey legs. How will you convince Orgonol Frenzy-Of-Lampreys, the cruel surgeon and faery Transmogrifier that his punishment is cruel and inhumane? Will you try and kill him and his cannibal ogre, convince Petala One-Wing to forgive the boy and intercede on your behalf, convince the Alder King nominally ruling the pleasure palace to intervene, or just take the abomination to a high-ranking wizard you know?