Necromancer Games has been one of the biggest publishers of adventure modules for the d20 system. While most of them are fairly generic, they all tend to be set in the game gameworld. This mostly consists of having the same gods and referring to other Necromancer Games modules, but many of them do mention a city called "Bard's Gate".
Due to this frequent mention of the city, people have been expecting a sourcebook for Bard's Gate for some time. Since 2001 at least ("Tomb of Abysthor" mentions the sourcebook as forthcoming, along with an adventure called "The Wrath of Orcus"). But it finally has seen the light of day in 2006. Was it worth the wait?
Well, honestly, probably not. But what sort of thing does live up to that long a wait? Still, it is a good solid fantasy city, really only suffering from some blandness.City Background
Bard's Gate is basically an independent city-state, ruled by a Burgess (one step below "Burger Queen", apparently). It's set in something of a wilderness area, along a trade route between two larger cities. It's a medium sized city, 20,000 to 35,000 people, depending on the time of year. It's about 800 years old, but doesn't have a heck of a lot of history (the timeline of history is pretty much in one small box).
In D&D, at least 3.x, cities have Alignments much like characters which sort of define how they operate ethically and morally. Bard's Gate is listed as being Chaotic Good, but seemingly differs from what I would think of as a Chaotic Good city. For instance, slavery seemingly is tolerated (which is neither good nor chaotic). There are fairly strict weapons and armor control laws. Rather than commerce being laiz faire, there are a staggering number of guilds, many of them overlapping. There's also a fairly strong police presence, as well as a number of private guards. All in all which would probably make the place Lawful Neutral at best.The City Itself
The city has 16 different districts, each of which gets a chapter. This part of the book makes up about 100 pages.
Generally speaking, there's an overview of the district, followed by writeups of notable locations. Lesser NPCs have just their basic stats listed in the text (attributes and level and hp) while more important ones have full write ups in the back.
Locations generally get a few paragraphs devoted to them and mostly describe the place and its staff (and what drinks are served). For the most part it's good enough, though I would have liked to have seen some mention of who the regular patrons are. The people who run the place, especially a bar/tavern only make up part of the experience - the other customers are very important to.
A handful of locations do get a much more detailed treatment, including maps and room by room descriptions. These are generally the more important locations. For instance, a high priced Inn, a couple temples, a casino.
It's a fairly typical city. There are good sections, there are bad sections. There's a market section and a temple section. Thieves' Quarter. And docks. Usual stuff. Not all typical, though. One of the more unique districts is the Bard's College. Which is what the City is named after, I guess.
There is some silliness in some entries. For instance, there is something like a rock group. A bunch of barbarians called "The Accursed" perform at a bar in the Bard's College area, and it says that young female fans throw undergarments on stage as they perform. Kinda goofy.
Other oddities include a tavern run by female paladins, a leprechaun shoemaker, a sculptor who makes gargoyles (possibly a reference to Clark Ashton Smith's tales), a cannibalistic pie-maker, and a lothario halfling (which I have some trouble believing would be desirable to adult human women, but then again, they do have big feet, so maybe...).
It's all very interesting, but I would have liked to have seen something like an adventurer's guide to places. That is, sort of a listing of which shops they should visit, which temples provide things like raise dead to them, which wizards will do the same with stone to flesh and the like. A lot of that stuff is in the descriptions, but you have to pour through and take notes. But those things are what the PCs will likely be looking for.
More bars/taverns would also have been nice. As would adventure hooks for various places.The Adventures
Two site based adventures are included. One is right in the heart of the city, and has the PCs investigating just what happened to the old Thieves' Guild (it died out somewhat mysteriously, and everyone who goes in, never comes out). The second is a gnoll lair outside of town.
I really like the one about the Thieves Guild. It uses a lot of custom monsters, so the PCs won't know what to expect. It also has a pretty good reward, because if they clear it out, presumably they now have a pretty swanky base in the middle of the city (albeit it's not clear who owns it anymore, if "finders, keepers" doesn't apply to houses).
The gnoll one is good if your PCs want to attack a gnoll fort. Which never did much to me personally, but some might get a kick out of it. It's fairly intelligently designed, so not a pushover.The Gods of Bard's Gate
The modules from Necromancer uses a common group of Deities. Some are fairly standard D&D-ish and are derived from Mythology or certain fantasy writings. Orcus, Tyche, Hecate and Bacchus from Roman/Greek mythology. Some Norse gods like Hel and Freya and Thyrm. A couple Egyptian ones, Set and Ra. Gromm seems suspiciously like the Crom of Conan, though maybe not. Tsathogga, borrowed from Clark Ashton Smith.
No stats (and thus not very 1st Edition-ish), just a description and their domains, alignment, symbol, etc.
There's a few new magic items, including a magical deck of cards which is pretty neat. The Deck of Prophecy, which doesn't actually fortell the future, so much as affect future events that are asked about. Some cards will give a bonus to certain die rolls involving that event, others give penalties.
A couple new classes - The Beggar and the Shadowmask. Both are somewhat flawed, I think. The Beggar is supposedly an NPC class, but misses the mark in realizing that NPCs classes are meant to be simpler than PC classes, not necessarily just weaker. So while it's weaker, it also has a bunch of special abilities, so it's a pain to actually make characters with.
The Shadowmask is a prestige class. Sort of a super-rogue. It uses a non-standard base attack bonus progression, something which really really irks me, and is generally a bad idea unless there is a good reason. There isn't one, I can see.
There are some new monsters, including some from the Tome of Horrors updating to 3.5 stats.Layout/Art
It pretty much looks like every other Necromancer Games product. Fairly big margins, a lot of white space, but a very clean and nice looking layout that is easy to read. Good use of bold and larger, readable (ie, not too fancy) fonts for titles.
One thing they continue to do, which really irks me, is include the stats in the back of the book, and instead of giving you an exact page, just say "See NPC Appendix". Just how hard is it to say "see page xxx", instead? Yes, it takes some work to find the exact page number, but less than a minute or three each, and they had what, 5 years?
To make things worse, the NPCs in the NPC Appendix appear in a different order than they do in the main book. Or at least, the chapters do. So basically, if you plan on using the book, you'll want to write page numbers in.
Also weirdly, is that the NPC Appendix sometimes has a lot more information than just stats. Sometimes not.
The art is somewhat underwhelming. I would say a good chunk of the art in Necromancer Games products is done by one artist, Brian LeBlanc, who is also very very good. For some reason, he doesn't appear in this book. Instead are a bunch of different artists. They all seem to have a similar sort of style, which gives the product a coherent feel, but some are better than others. Indeed, some have a lot of trouble with faces or just people as a whole. It's not a bad looking book, but neither is it good looking, either.Final Musings
It's a good, solid city usable in the majority of D&D settings. Kind of disappointing that there was no artwork from Brian LeBlanc, who illustrated so many of the original Necromancer Games adventures. Including the Tomb of Abysthor, which is a product you probably want to use in conjunction with this, since it's right nearby the city.
On the other hand, it was a bit sparse for a city book. So many sections of the city, but so few pages per section on average. And where are the random encounter tables? How can you have a city book with "1st Edition Feel" without random encounter tables?
If you compare it to the book I think really set the bar for d20 city books, Bluffside, it's pretty lacking in small touches as well (Like patrons of businesses, adventure hooks for every location, etc). But this book is far, far more generic and thus actually more useful to the average DM.