Review: Ptolus – City by the Spire

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Ptolus: City by the Spire was first published by Malhavoc Press way back in August, 2006. At the time, it was arguably “the most deluxe roleplaying product ever published,” being a staggering 672 pages with an embossed cover and multiple extra features. An update was funded by Kickstarter in March of 2020, with 5,621 backers pledging a modest $782,923 to produce a new printing of this mammoth RPG setting, for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons as well as Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System.

PDFs of the book have hit backers, with physical books currently being available to preorder. And while there are many more products that have stolen the title of “most deluxe RPG product” (including the Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube, Monte Cook’s own Invisible Sun, and anything by Beadle & Grimm) Ptolus is still a very, very impressive book. 

I’m unfamiliar with the Cypher System, so while I have access to that PDF I haven’t opened it. This review will focus on the 5E D&D update. Although, I imagine the majority of my comments and critiques will apply equally to both versions of the product.

What It Is

This massive tome is a hefty 672-pages. The physical copy is a full colour hardcover book with three cloth bookmarks sewn into the binding. (And extra cardstock bookmarks you can download.) The PDF is fully bookmarked and hyperlinked. Not just in the table of contents, but page references in every sidebar. And boy howdy are there sidebars. 

Each page of the book basically has three columns. The two standard columns of text and a third sidebar that runs the length of the page and has page references and sidenotes. Every time an NPC, item, spell, or historical event is referenced in the main text, the page number where they’re detailed is listed at the side. The sidebars also contain GM tips, personal notes, trivia regarding the world, NPC statblock tweaks, and so much more. 

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The book advertises multiple “special features” that are included separately. In the physical product, these were in a separate envelope. For users of the PDF, these are separate downloads. Special features include numerous handouts and maps, a menu form the tavern, a list of equipment from a store, several official documents (for when guards demand “papers, please.”), a wanted poster, several flyers, and a calendar. It also includes campaign journals from Mr. Cook’s own home game, some serialized fiction, character sheets, graphics and art, and a year’s worth of “this week in Ptolus” events. Curiously, these aren’t included with download of the Core Rulebook and aren’t listed anywhere on the webstore. Thankfully, there is a link on page 11 of the PDF that takes you to these files.

The book starts with a 26-page introduction to the city and history. Also called out as the “Player’s Guide“, this whole chapter is free online as a separate PDF. If you’re at all curious about Ptolus the book or Ptolus the city, I encourage you to check this out.

From there, the book delves into the larger world surrounding the city, species, cosmology & religion, history, and organizations. Then it spends 245-pages (!) detailing the city proper, with each district receiving several pages that describe key locations and inhabitants. The start of each district has several pages describing the tone and how to use that district in adventures. Many locations have an adventure hook or scenario included, incentivizing the GM a reason to include that location as well as providing a rapid encounter if the PCs wander into an unexpected store or tavern. 

Part IV delves beneath the city and describes the many dungeons and ruins beneath Ptolus, including the sewer, an abandoned dwarven city, several natural caves, and more. Part V is “Above the City,” and describes the two locations on the Spire: the impossibly tall tower that stretches upward a few hundred feet. The first of these, Goth Gulgamel, is an evil fortress that serves as a higher level dungeon crawl. The second is Jabel Shammar, which is meant to be an “end of the campaign” location. The climax of a by-the-book Ptolus campaign. (If there is such a thing.)

Part V is dedicated to life in the city, with chapters on being a resident, the delver lifestyle, law & crime, technology, and some proprietary Monte Cook magic-tech items known as “chaositech.” This goes into such details as the cost of living, rent, and other expenses (from taxes or a massage to funerary costs).

The book ends with Part VI: Running a Ptolus Campaign. Six chapters offering campaign advice as well as suggestions for urban campaigns, four small adventures, eighteen new monsters, and 20 NPCs (most being generic but a few being named characters). There are also some character options with five (!) new cleric domains in the magic chapter along with 30 new spells, 50-plus magic items of various rarities. There’s also a new bard college (Knight of the Cord) and a paladin oath (Knight of the Pale).

There’s a LOT in this book.

The Good

As mentioned, the layout sets this book apart and is to die for. Even fifteen years later, this is still “the bar” by which I judge the usability of an RPG book. The sidebars make navigating the book and finding referenced elements easy. The layout is also colour coded, with each Part having a different colour for its the headings, sidebar text, and the coloured tab at the edge of the page. The tabs and colour coding isn’t quite as delineated as the original, but it’s still usable (and arguably easier for people who may be partially colourblind). 

While I’ve seen prettier RPG books (Shadows of Esteren) this is still the best layout in the hobby.

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There’s a ridiculous amount of plot hooks and campaign ideas. Half of the locations get their own plot hook, and every NPC has a story and goal. Each organization (and there are many) serves a similar purpose, potentially acting as a rival, supporting ally, misguided enemy, patron, or aspirational goal for a PC. There are strictly villainous groups like chaos cults and the undead loving Forsaken, as well as semi-evil demonic Fallen who could be presented as allies for tiefling PCs or fiendish villains to curbstomp. The city is home to multiple assassin’s guilds, with not all being evil allowing for potential PC membership. And there’s even a whole group of vigilante Sister Nights: the Sisterhood of Silence. Because what’s not to love about peacekeeping warrior nuns?

Speaking of organizations, the Brotherhood of Redemption is devoted to converting “evil” humanoids into productive members of society. A neat idea, and an interesting way of disposing off antagonistic creatures without killing them. However, their methods are also questionable, raising further moral issues. But if you handwave the (undoubtedly unintended) similarities to conversion therapy, this group is a fun patron that allows you to subvert murder-hobo tropes.

Similarly, there’s also a sidebar at the end of chapter 3 regarding evil humanoids and encouraging DMs to ignore certain peoples automatically being evil—such as drow— if it makes players uncomfortable. While DM’s don’t need permission to change things they don’t like about a setting, it’s nice to have a reminder of that from the author. 

(Sidebar aside, this is still very much a book written in the early-2000s with assumed evil drow, orcs, ratfolk, sahaughin, etc. No effort is made to change this in the text. If you’re uncomfortable with an entire group of elves having an evil culture, be aware you will have to ignore or change those sections.)

On the surface, there’s an intimidating amount of content in Ptolus. But you don’t need to know it all. While working through the book, readers will very quickly gravitate to something that catches their interest, and a campaign develops. The criminal aspects might catch your eye, prompting you to run a campaign inspired by Gangs of London, where the prologue of the first session features the death of crimelord Menon Balacazar. Focusing on that means you don’t need to do more than skim the entries on the wicked Vladaam evil noble family or the adventurous Delver’s Guild, religion or politics in the city, or any of the dungeons beneath Ptolus. 

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As the city was designed with delvers (read: adventurers) in mind, many of the iconic adventuring locations have great flavour. Like blacksmiths that focus on arms and armour. And a tavern haunted by a ghostly bard producing phantom music. Most of these locations are fully mapped, providing an interesting inn to drop in any game. Each district also has a map of a typical apartment or house found in that district. This is not only useful for describing a residence during an investigation, but as a floorplan for when the PCs purchase property: the DM has a map they can pass to the PCs to customize and make their own. 

Several characters are featured in multiple pieces of art. (Or a thumbnail of the character is reprinted in multiple places.) It’s not just a generic commoner in the bar but Jevicca Nor, a member of the inner circle of the Inverted Pyramid. She’s just one of the many high level NPCs running around Ptolus, but (like Eberron) not all of these high level characters are adventurers and willing to save the world. They have their own concerns. To help you keep track, the book has a chart of low, mid, and high level NPCs that could be allies, and a similar list of foes. There’s even a sidebar with a list of the high level clerics able to resurrect the dead.

The book doesn’t just cover the city or place it in a generic location, but sets Ptolus in a world with its own history and events. Enough is presented here to have Ptolus be the launching point into that larger world, which has its own troubles and danger. There’s not a huge amount of information, but more than enough to build atop.

In several places the book encourages customization. Despite having a ridiculous amount of detail and options, DMs are still encouraged to make Ptolus their own. New gods in particular are encouraged. There’s a fairly expansive pantheon included in the book already, but it still encourages you to invent new cults and gods, adding their temples and shrines to the city’s “Street of a Million Gods.”

The Bad

This isn’t a REAL update of Ptolus. It doesn’t update the setting based on the changes to fantasy gaming and world design over the last decade-and-a-half. It doesn’t make a concerted effort to fix the “problems” of the setting, like innately evil drow or its overwhelmingly white populace. Similarly, it doesn’t try to convert Ptolus to 5th Edition so much as reprint Ptolus in a different rule set. Races added in 5th Edition—such as dragonborn—are not included. Warlocks are only briefly mentioned with only a single NPC called out as being that class. Subclasses aren’t given a role and subraces aren’t apparent: there’s no discussion of different types of gnome or halfling, and the subtypes of elves and dwarves don’t match those in the rules. There’s no attempt to tie backgrounds into the world, and the table of PC backgrounds doesn’t even try to connect with a character’s background (and should really have been renamed something else to avoid confusion). 

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Not all of the mechanical conversions are good. There’s several references to using Sleight of Hand to pick locks, rather than Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) or a Dexterity check requiring thieves’ tools. There’s also numerous sidebars with information that can be gathered with a check, but this tends to use Investigation rather than Persuasion or History. 

The economy and presence of magical items is also still rooted in 3rd Edition, where magical crafting was a much larger part of the game and characters were expected to have a wide array of enchanted items. NPCs very much still have a Christmas tree of magical items.

I’m a little disappointed that there are so few unique NPCs. You’d expect some of the key characters, like Sheva Callister or the Iron Mage, to have unique stat blocks. Instead, they’re just base NPCs modified in the sidebar. (But, annoyingly, these customizations don’t modify their CR, despite increasing the character’s power.)

Meanwhile, the setting just feels less special now. When the Ptolus campaigns were originally running in 1999 and 2000, having a fantasy setting that was based on the game’s tropes and conventions rather than those of fantasy fiction was revolutionary. This was a world designed for D&D rather than a world you just happened to play D&D in. But even when Ptolus was published in 2006 this was starting to change, as Eberron had done similar things in 2004. We’ve now seen numerous other settings built with D&D games in mind, or even designed specifically for 5th Edition (like Wildemount). And many of the conventions and assumptions of the game have even changed; the tropes of D&D have evolved. What made Ptolus the setting special now feels commonplace and unremarkable. Almost dated.

The setting also doesn’t feature any added diversity. No additional gay, trans, or ace individuals. This is very much NOT saying that the book made no improvements concerning value changes in the last decade-and-a-half: the reference to homophobia among dwarves was removed and the Species chapter gives some nonbinary names to all included species. But there’s no enby characters in the book and still only the single gay character. And there’s precious few people of colour. The standout non-white NPC is the Holy Emperor of the Church, Rejpboth Ylestos, who is basically the King-Pope, and very much black in his picture on page 91. But there are few other notable people of colour in the book. This feels very much like diversity in the early 2000s, when movies would have overwhelmingly white casts but have a black man as President. Sure all the protagonists, antagonists, love interests, comedic sidekicks, and background extras were white, but the cameo-in-chief was African American so the film was progressive…

The art in general is sadly of mixed quality. The vast majority of art pieces were found in the original, with a small few added with Kickstarter funds. Even when the book was published, gamers were moving away from black-and-white art and some of the pieces were so-so. But it was an indie publication, so this was acceptable. Now, with standards higher even for 3rd Party books, there are still a few stinkers that date the product. (Thankfully, there’s no low-rez artwork like other reprints of 3rd Edition books.) That said, many classical pieces hold up nicely. And for a 3rd Party book there is a LOT of art; there’s something on almost every page.

The Ugly

As mentioned, this book is very much a product of the 2000s in terms of portrayal of drow. By default, dark elves are not only unwelcome in Ptolus, but being one within the city limits is a literal crime. Punishable by death. And harbouring a dark elf and providing one aid is punishable by imprisonment for two years. Yes, playing a core PHB race is a crime, as is having one in the party. Why? Unclear. It’s not even because they’re assumed to be evil slavers. Because slavery is called out as being accepted in the city! Owning a slave is somehow legal, even though selling them is illegal; buying another sentient being is apparently fine. There’s even a reference that nobles “use ogre slaves to carry palanquins.” 

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While most of the art is passable, the maps have not aged well at all. They scream out “early 2000s Photoshop with default textures.” They’re bad. The Monte Cook Games web store sells an oversized vinyl map, which is undeniably a neat accessory for a game, but not something I could personally look at without fixating on the dated quality of the image. I can’t unsee the awkward bevelling at the cliffs that make them look like they’re floating, the uneven global lighting, simple texture to the forest, and the like. 

(That said… I think I still prefer the maps in this book to some of the line art found in recent official D&D adventures.)

The PC rules for the Cherubim elf are just terrible. It overvalues flight and stacks on disadvantages to compensate, making a race unusable. It’s wholly weaker than the aarakocra from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion in every metric. Don’t use this race. 

As mentioned, many of the NPCs are still laden with magic items. Which is odd but not dealbreaking. However a few have four or more items requiring attunement, which is an irritating oversight. 

On page 502, the oft-mentioned “leather coat” has its stats awkwardly tucked at the very bottom of the page as a footnote. It’s very awkwardly placed. But it doesn’t matter as there’s no reason to wear a leather coat rather than a chain shirt. Ever. Which is a shame because, as a child of the ’90s, I do like a badass leather longcoat.

When a monster is referenced in the text, often the sidebar will list its hit points. I’m uncertain why, as this is typically the exact same hit points found in the Monster Manual. I don’t see the benefit.

The Awesome

Chapter 3 is renamed “Species” rather than “Races.” And the book anticipated the recent change to races/ lineages in D&D, with Ability Score Increases not being set but instead being the player’s choice.

I do love that there are multiple thieves guilds at play in the city, with the Balacazar Crime Family, Killraven Crime League, and the classical Longfinger’s Guild all competing and somewhat at odds. This allows you to have the traditional thieves’ guild that believes in honour among thieves and trained the heroic rogue character as well as the evil, murderous guild of thieves that would steal from an orphanage. You can do a story where the various guilds go to war with the city (and PCs) being caught in the middle or the story where the PCs try to take back the streets for their guild. Or even a story where less moral PCs work their way up the ranks of a crime family in a D&D version of Grand Theft Auto.

Similarly, the omnipresent arcane guild also runs the coolest magic shop ever, with the Dreaming Apothecary solving so many of the problems of having stores filled with expensive and dangerous bespoke magic items but lacking firm security against mid-level adventurers with loose morals. There’s no cheating the Dreaming Apothecary. There is another magic item store, Myraeth’s, but this is presented as a pawn shop full of items recovered during adventures. The book even includes a list of typical stock, which is amazing. There’s also a table to determine odds the shop has a particular item desired by the PCs. (Unfortunately, this is based on price not rarity, and clearly was not updated to reflect the prices of magic items in the 5e DMG.) 

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On page 133 there is a full-page flowchart showing connections between the organizations. This is a neat reminder that these groups don’t all work in a vacuum and might support or rival other factions. This is emblematic of Ptolus as a whole: the book is full of such connectivity, which really makes the setting work. A character in Old Town might be the son of a tavern owner in Midtown and associated with the House Sadar in the Nobles Quarter. Each chapter isn’t stand-alone and dissociated from the rest of the book.

Page 154 has a chart of travel times between districts, allowing you to tell at a glance how long it takes to get from Midtown to the Docks or Oldtown.

The book is filled with little bits of GM advice and stories from the original Ptolus campaigns. Sometimes these are adventure hooks or peaks behind the DM Screen, while other times they’re reminders to describe the smell of a region or the potency of a trap.

I love the cross section of the areas under the city on page 385. It’s both a visual of how high the spire is as well as how deep things go beneath the city. It’s one thing to read how deep the caverns stretch underground and another to see it compared to the height of the city proper. 

There’s a large two-page spread on “Vices”, including alcohol, magical drugs, and gambling. It’s always good to know the view of intoxicants in a location, as well as what people do for less than legal fun. Another spread even has a brief description of some games of chance played in the city. There’s also a sizable chart of crimes and their punishments, so you know just how much to punish the players for stealing or having a bar brawl. 

Speaking of crimes, the book makes it apparent casting mind-altering enchantments in the city IS a crime. Which makes sense in a fantasy world based on D&D: you don’t want wizards going around casting charm person on storekeepers. Enchanters have been getting some negative attention of late, given how they intersect with consent, and Ptolus having laws against enchantments feels accidently topical but still appropriate.

Returning to vices, the book doesn’t just detail illicit fun, but good ol’ family fun with a spread on a local holiday, complete with events & games you can engage in during that festival. Yet another spread has a description of food and common meals. Minor details like the meal being served at the tavern can really make a game come alive. 

The equipment section has a rat harness. Which is a slightly less silly version of the “bag of rats” where you strap a rat into the harness and then use it to trigger traps that detect living things. Ridiculous, but you can pretty much envision a game session where a player had that item commissioned.

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Final Thoughts

If you want a generic fantasy setting built around the needs of a Dungeons & Dragons party but don’t like Eberron OR want to avoid standing in the shadow of Matthew Mercer by using Exandria, then Ptolus is an excellent choice. It’s classical in tone but less well known, so you can do what you want with the setting. It’s fantastic without being as gonzo as Eberron or Planescape. It’s classical without being as awkwardly retro as Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms. And it’s simply bursting with adventures. You could easily run three or four full campaigns in Ptolus, that are all thematically different and touch on different styles of adventure, and still never see everything this book has to offer. There will still be NPCs that are not met, locations that aren’t visited, and adventure hooks not encountered. 

It’s a large book, but it is a book that is surprisingly easy to reference and run. Despite its size, it’s fairly easy to find content you need, with the sidebars, expansive table of contents, and multiple indexes. Plus the added digital extras, like the expanded table of contents and various handouts and maps.

The wealth of content not only makes Ptolus useful for a more scripted campaign where you research and plan in advance, but also for sandbox games where you react to the player’s spontaneous wishes. Because when the players do the unexpected and decide to find a shop that sells… let’s say pottery, you can choose to flip to the South Market section and find Salora’s Pots. (Page 339 for the curious.) Or you can invent something on the fly, knowing that there’s plenty of room on the map for extra shops.

If you’ve never read Ptolus before and have the money, it’s a worthy addition to your gaming shelf. It’s a centerpiece book that stands out as a conversation starter or display piece. And you’re guaranteed to find some use for the book, as it’s a wealth of locations you can just strip out and drop into your world. Need an inn or a sewer or a prison? This book can provide.

If you’ve already read Ptolus it’s a harder sell. The key content is the world, and most of that doesn’t require updated rules. I have the 3.5 Edition version, and I might just stick with that and crack the 5e PDF for when I absolutely need an updated magic item. 

And while this book is expensive at $149.99, it’s almost cheap by the standards of some modern gaming products. It costs less than the D&D Core Rulebooks Gift Set and is much cheaper than a Beadle & Grimm platinum box. And while it’s less fancy, it contains far more content and support for games than a B&G boxed set. Plus, after spending that kind of money on a single book, you’re almost incentivized to find a use for it: you will find an excuse to run a one-shot or mini campaign in Ptolus. Because while Ptolus: City by the Spire is no longer “the most deluxe roleplaying product ever published,” it’s still arguably the most deluxe roleplaying book ever published.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income—which is necessary to buy RPG products—is entirely dependent on my PDF sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the classic version of the Ravenloft campaign setting, which is a huge passion product. And if it sells well, I’ll add additional darklords to the product. It’s companion product is Allies Against the Night, which takes classic Ravenloft heroes and makes them into sidekicks (based on the rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).

Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, and a book of Variant Rules. Phew.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.

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