Absalom, City of Lost Omens In-Depth Review

Hello my friends and welcome to another PAIZO REVIEW! Today we’re taking on a monster of a setting guide and sinking our teeth into Pathfinder Lost Omens: Absalom, City of Lost Omens. The devs were really let off the leash for this one, so let’s quit mucking about and get into it!

Lost Omens Cover.png

First Impressions​

Clocking in at just about 400 pages, City of Lost Omens is what we call in the industry a big thicc chunky boi. Rightly so, too—this is the crown jewel of Paizo’s setting, so they’re going to give it the space to breathe. That said, this is definitely a bit of a case of drinking from the firehose. Prospective readers and GMs are advised to stick to the sections most relevant to your current session or campaign. Thankfully, the major districts are largely independent, and any spillover is short and specific.

The initial chapters of City of Lost Omens also left a weird taste in my mouth. It’s possible this is due to the content changed from older versions of Absalom that were conceived in, shall we say, less enlightened times—humanoid slavery only recently became illegal in Absalom city, and there’s active and thriving worship of a god of thievery and murder. There appears to be a distinct undercurrent of semi-belligerent libertarianism underpinning much of the depictions of authority and accepted power relationships: government organizations and civic bureaucracy are routinely described as corrupt, “sprawling”, or “metastasized”, and it is apparently common enough practice for the high executive office to deliberately delay convening the ruling legislative body to “preserve … the political upper hand”. The only exception to this rule appears to be the various armed law enforcement agencies, which are described in a dedicated sidebar as “generally [having] a reputation for competence and civic service”.

It’s a difficult balance to strike between providing players with an option for going about Adventuring (tm) in a city and landing on law enforcement as the closest parallel. But City of Lost Omens’ depiction of civil organizations doesn’t square (for me at least) with the other efforts the Paizo devs have made to address and rise above many of the issues that plague our real world.

Lost Omens Policing.png

Some Dang Good Stuff Y’All​

Let’s get into all the stuff that makes this book a joy to read and a real treat for GMs—and trust me, there is a LOT!

For example—did you know that badgers are a common pet animal in Absalom, right next to cats and dogs? Well you do now! Did you know that there are night markets run and frequented by kobolds? Why not! Absalom even has its own Florida Man—his name is Zusgut, and yes, he’s a goblin. A goblin KING, thank you.

The authors have also done an INCREDIBLE job at getting the mind of the reader firmly planted on Absalom’s streets. First and foremost are the “Day in the Life” and “Year in the Life” sections, which are indispensable in establishing the city as a living, breathing place you can live in, rather than a collection of NPC names and some stats about what you can buy. The sidebars are also doing some incredibly heavy lifting, too—some describe the Smells of Absalom (the SMELLS!) and there are regular sidebars that feature a song relating to that particular chapter. Nailing the major senses—time, sight, smell, sound, even taste—are what set this book apart from many, many of its peers.

The Location Master List, I’ll admit, made my eyes cross the first time they landed on it, but it’s likely to be an invaluable tool as one of many ways to look up a given landmark when a GM is pressed for time. Thankfully, the list is also followed by a much-more-neatly-organized index of places. There’s also a two-page spread dedicated to a table of rumors! RUMORS! And another two-page spread of minor shops and services, complete with a punchy description and a sprinkling of some NPCs!

Truly, most everything in the first two chapters, “Absalom” and “Guide to the City”, is a treat to read, my concerns about ideology notwithstanding.

Lost Omens Starstone Isle.jpg

Meat and Potatoes​

The real heft of City of Lost Omens is the twelve chapters dedicated to the twelve major districts that comprise Absalom city. Each chapter is laid out largely the same way, with each chapter cramming as much character and potential into that structure. I’ll start with what I like that shows up as common elements, and move on to pieces from the districts that really stood out.

Each district starts out with a lovingly detailed full-page illustration meant to capture the spirit of that district. In addition, my little cartographer’s heart (which is also my GM heart) sings with joy to see not only does each district include a thumbnail map highlighting the location of each district in relation to the rest of the city, but also a full-page map with all its streets, buildings, and notable locations laid out in big, bold detail. I have only a few minor usability issues here—it might be nice to have a sidebar on the same spread as the full-page map with a list of the names of all of its points of interest, and it looks like the points of interest are labeled on the map alphabetically, not by any pattern of positional order, which I think I might prefer. (For example, how on earth did they decide that the Starstone Citadel was NOT point of interest number one?)

Each point of interest will also end by including a small list of notable NPCs the characters might find there—and what it is the NPCs are doing! Truly a gift to floundering GMs. There are also numerous sidebars peppered throughout each district that provide hooks for instantaneous action or longer-form adventure—a street chase could just be a street chase, or it could lead to the players uncovering the sinister secrets behind the Petal District’s immaculately-curated cemeteries and mausoleums.

Finally, each point of interest is so lovingly detailed and crammed full of adventure potential I think it’s a shame that each one isn’t given an illustration of some kind. You’re already committing to a four-hundred-page book, folks—we ain’t going to complain about a few more!

Now, onto specifics! When it comes to the ASCENDANT COURT, I’m still incredibly tickled that the guy running law enforcement on all the pious folk is known as Runewolf the Unbeliever. I do, however, refuse to accept Runewolf’s illustration—he’s far too clean and well-groomed. My Runewolf will functionally be an angry, blond Wookiee.

The EASTGATE district is a bit chillingly familiar to me—looks like even in Fantasy Adventures we can’t escape homeowners associations and gentrification. Gentrification don’t stop at the Eastgate, however—the FOREIGN QUARTER basically exists as a direct result of a “foreign folk live over THERE” law. And it’s explicitly a law, too, not the byproduct of some veiled redlining policies like you might expect, or by the desire of expats to remain together. It’s a LAW, and somehow that has remained in force since time immemorial. That having been said, I couldn’t be more delighted that there are entire places of business dedicated to providing hot lamps and warm bathtubs for visiting lizardfolk!

The IVY district is the third major player when it comes to gentrification, but honestly it also wins a lot of points back because it’s home to a gang of troublemaking LESHYS. And they’re called the Brattlebunch, which I definitely didn’t misread the first couple of times as Battlebrunch. Ooooo, battlebrunch.

Denizens of the PETAL DISTRICT are said to be “unutterably smug” if their house provides them with a view of both the Kortos Mounts and Absalom Bay—and honestly, mood. Their prestige is also supposed to be in direct relation to their position along the hill that dominates the Petal District—it’s a shame the map of the district doesn’t actually show the elevation of the district for GMs who want to use that.

WESTGATE is basically Absalom City’s retirement village, so of course they have the one police force that responds on time. There’s also an INSANE super-max prison beneath Westgate’s streets, and the streets are lined with ghoulishly creepy statues of prisoners that got petrified in Absalom’s answer to the Pamplona bull run. That having been said—there’s a worker-owned bar in Westgate that has a tradition of dressing up the statue of its old miser of a boss, and I highly encourage you to disregard canon and keep that tradition alive.

Lost Omens Foreign Quarter.png

The Back Nine​

The last few chapters of Absalom City concern themselves with what is underneath, enclosing, and outside of Absalom. The UNDERCITY is everything subterranean that isn’t a cellar, and apparently includes the gigantic labyrinth that serves as the lair of whatever unknown leviathan that sleeps beneath Absalom City. WALLS, GATES, AND KEEPS gives readers a look into the defenses that maintain Absalom’s sovereignty and power, as well as some of the ancient contingencies put in place that have long since been forgotten. Finally, and for my money most importantly, OUTSKIRTS gives readers a detailed look of Absalom’s place within the broader context of the Starstone Isle and all the points of civilization that surround it.

Easily a quarter of this book is dedicated to the penultimate chapter: the NPC Glossary. Anyone who was ever given a name in the preceding three hundred pages is given at least two paragraphs or more of description, history, and goals so that they can be plopped into any campaign at a moment’s notice. The index at the end of the chapter is not, as one might hope, arranged by location; rather, it is arranged by NPC type. I might have preferred location as the primary sorting factor, followed by profession.

Lost Omens Street Fight.png

Conclusion​

That about does it for Absalom, City of Lost Omens! It really ran headlong into the juxtaposition of its core gameplay mechanics versus the desire to create a richly textured, multi-faceted city. Once you’re over that hurdle, though, this is an excellent supplement to any Pathfinder game, and well worth the read.
 

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Ben Reece

Ben Reece



Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
Absalom, City of Lost Omens is definitely one of the outliers of the entire Pathfinder Second Edition setting books. This book is not about rules, but completely about the city of Absalom and how it fits into the setting overall. It is incredibly detailed and I love that. By paying attention to the details of the city, the authors generated quite a few plot hooks for enterprising GMs to use in their home campaigns. The insane detail breathes life into those campaigns, giving the GMs plenty of information to work with in building them. Of course, the GM can always modify the details in any way they want for those home campaigns, just like they have always been able to do in any adventure setting.

As the author of this review pointed out, the book brings together a lot of the elements that were developed during the original run of the Pathfinder First Edition products, updates them, and modifies them based on current affairs in the new edition. It really is a behemoth of a setting book. In fact, its sheer size made me think this might have been better to have been developed as a box set, but those seem to be a product of a bygone era these days.

I absolutely enjoy having the book. Absalom is the hub for the Pathfinder Society which I play and run extensively, but as I build up a home campaign in a different setting, the content of this book is very useful being transferred as need to it. When I add The Grand Bazaar to it, I have a well-fleshed out hub of my own after modifications for that campaign. But, I also have the book with all the wonderful detail to use with Pathfinder Society which provides more opportunity for roleplay in the Society adventures I run. Players really like that added layer of immersion at the tables.
 

Retreater

Legend
So they took the original Absalom book (which was awesome) and watered it down for "sensitivities"? Hard pass.
It seems the review mentions only the recent outlawing of slavery as a "watered down" component. Otherwise, the reviewer says that the book actually sticks too closely to the themes of the previous material.
So I guess if you're going to pass only because you can't legally purchase slaves in a fantasy city supplement, I don't know what to tell ya.
 

JThursby

Adventurer
The index at the end of the chapter is not, as one might hope, arranged by location; rather, it is arranged by NPC type. I might have preferred location as the primary sorting factor, followed by profession.
That's because many NPCs show up at multiple locations, sometimes multiple districts.
So they took the original Absalom book (which was awesome) and watered it down for "sensitivities"? Hard pass.
What on earth are you talking about? The original book was 64 pages long. In what universe is writing 6 times as much stuff "watering down"? It's not like Absalom became that much better or a safer place to live, it's still a True Neutral city with deadly politics, religious cults of all kinds and all sorts of unsavory factions lurking in the shadows.
 

Superchunk77

Adventurer
That's because many NPCs show up at multiple locations, sometimes multiple districts.

What on earth are you talking about? The original book was 64 pages long. In what universe is writing 6 times as much stuff "watering down"? It's not like Absalom became that much better or a safer place to live, it's still a True Neutral city with deadly politics, religious cults of all kinds and all sorts of unsavory factions lurking in the shadows.
I just re-read the review again and noticed that I misread the reviewer's take on the imposition of modern world "issues" on said material. I take back my original comment. Carry on.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
It seems the review mentions only the recent outlawing of slavery as a "watered down" component. Otherwise, the reviewer says that the book actually sticks too closely to the themes of the previous material.
So I guess if you're going to pass only because you can't legally purchase slaves in a fantasy city supplement, I don't know what to tell ya.
It might not be that he wants to buy slaves. It might be he or she is unhappy at the reconning of various RPG products. No judgment there. Carry on.
 

JAMUMU

Justified & Ancient
I might pick this up as even though I'm not a Pathfinder guy, I'm a sucker for giant fantasy cities. All I'd need to do is add in a Dalek cult, and BOSH! Perfection!

 


payn

Legend
I might pick this up as even though I'm not a Pathfinder guy, I'm a sucker for giant fantasy cities. All I'd need to do is add in a Dalek cult, and BOSH! Perfection!

If this is half as good as the inner sea guide from PF1 era, it will be worth having for the read alone.
 

Fritterfae

Villager
Hot Tip: Get the poster map folio as well. EVERY location is numerically coded on this four poster mega map to match up exactly with the book, so you can literally follow the streets and see which bulidings you bump into. It's absolutely incredible. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around this book as well because it's an absolute beast of a compendium. The map helped A LOT.
 


Ixal

Adventurer
The police sticking out as 100% good and competent guys is probably a result of the Edgewatch AP which, in wake of the Floyd protests, was most likely modified to remove all mentions of bad police (except as enemies).
I agree, based on the state of all other institutions an entirely clean police force sounds strange.

What I wonder is how high fantasy life in the city and how believable it is. Especially for the A day and A year sections I rather want the perspective from an average joe having average days with average joe problems. Think similar books for Shadowrun or Warhammer fantasy. Also, the problems should appropriate to the available technology and society and not modern problems which would not make sense in Pathfinder. But the use of "gentrification" I fear its the latter.
 





Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
How hard would it be to use this book with D&D 5e rules?
As with most setting books from any game system, you could quite easily use Absalom with DD5 or any other game system. All you need to do is keep the locations, groups, and specific NPCs, while replacing the mechanical statistics like statblocks and loot with suitable replacements from the target game system. Absalom is richly detailed, even more so than older city offerings like the DD2e-era Waterdeep book or the seminal City State of the Invincible Overlord from Judge's Guild, back in the late 70s.
City adventures offer great opportunities for roleplaying, social interaction, intrigue and investigation, rather than simply relying on back-to-back combats like you see in classic dungeon crawls. They require the DM to keep a handle on a vast panoply of NPCs spanning the spectrum from friendly to hostile, and to breathe life into such a setting, the DM will need to have the denizens of a city react to player actions in plausible, logical ways.
 


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