Monday, November 18, 2019

RPG Review - Ptolus - City by the Spire


Ptolus is a setting for D&D 3e, developed by Monte Cook of Malhavoc Press. There was a limited edition hardcover printing in 2006. At the time I considered buying it (probably should have) but didn't.

Life got in the way, and this thing was expensive... Even getting it printed today, with one of the online printing services, it still ain't cheap.

Over the years

But... I did buy the .PDF versions, and enjoyed them immensely. So much that I decided to print a copy and get it properly bound. A couple of years ago I (laser) printed (most of) the pages, only to stack them in a box and put them in the attick, busy with other things.

One more project to accumulate dust.

Travel Guide

As a setting it primarily details a city, Ptolus. There's the surrounding world, but that's primarily background. Ptolus is what matters. (Hey, inhabitants say the same of Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Barcelona, so Ptolians (?) have the right to do so too.) Monte Cook used Ptolus as a kind of test bed for all 3e rules. So far so good.

What makes Ptolus interesting is that it has been written as a kind of travel guide. It even got colored tabs to help you find back specific sections of the book. Gotta' love that. (My own print doesn't show these, but they might be visible if you order an online print version from DriveThruRPG.)

And there are the tons of little things that provide adventure hooks. Every page, every location, every character offers some opportunity for role playing.

Lately I've started playing D&D again, and I remembered this stack of Ptolus prints. And yes, after some digging I recovered a box of prints from the attic. I rechecked and double checked and added some stuff.

And forgot about it. Again. And then, after a while, whilst cleaning up the attick I found that box again.


And now, I have this on my shelf, look at all that purple glory...

Hardcover, rubber glued linen spines. Sorry, not leather bound 😅 yet they are beautiful!

There are a few differences with the original Ptolus book:

  • I used the .PDF versions which sometimes have 'double' page numbers
  • I've added relevant information (read: pages) from Secret of the Delvers Guild and some other online resources, then sorted / inserted them in appropriate places
  • Parts of the Ptolus Sketchbooks were added, again as close as possible to the references in the original Ptolus book
  • I added some colored paper to separate sections (normally I wouldn't do that because it would all look better on the same kind of paper, but as these were printed over time, on different printers, on different paper, it somehow works)
  • I used and rebuild the 'extended index', used the 'extended table of contents', and added some custom back pages
  • As these are pretty strong, but not as well bound as the original Ptolus book I split the contents over three (four) hardcover books
  • I combined Night of Dissolution and Secrets of the Delvers' Guild into a fourth volume.

It's just fun to just leaf through these pages... I guess, deep down in my heart, I'm still a tourist...

Some more images of my 'purple' version of Ptolus:


There are two (three?) different versions of the Ptolus book. There's the online .PDF version (there may actually be two different PDF versions), and there's the 'big luxurious book' version. I suspect over time there have been some updates and renumbering. Nothing serious, but if you already printed (some parts of) the older versions, then be careful when assembling the final package, especially when it comes to parts / chapter numbering. I suspect this is caused by 'repackaging' the different chapters in later (online) versions.

Somehow Monte Cook managed to keep the page numbers the same, pfew! It would have been a disaster otherwise...

The (old) PDF version was published in 8 (9?) parts, the later PDF (and probably the hardcover) only sports 7 parts. In my printed version I spread the whole shebang over 4 hardcover books.

The differences that I spotted (note that I don't own an original hardcover version) between original hardcover / old PDF / new PDF:

  • The new Table of Contents is 6 pages
  • There are different versions of foreword / introduction
  • The Player's Guide old PDF was black and white, later versions are in color
  • The exact location of some of the illustrations was different, though not by much
  • My old .PDF version has two page numbers on each page, for example page 33 shows the numbers 33 and 67, in which 67 is the page number inside the total, assembled book, and 33 is the page number in the original published 'part'
  • The 'parts' have different numbers and names, though the contents stayed the same

Monte Cook also published a new 'extended table of contents' as well as a much more extensive index. (I've added both of them to my printed version.)

Book I - Ptolus - City by the Spire

(Please keep in mind that the original was one big fat single book. I had to spread it out over four books to keep things manageable and keep the spines strong enough. My listed 'contents' refer to my own copy, which is a combination of all the original Ptolus PDFs combined with everything else I could get my grubby hands on.)

Book I

  • Part I - Introduction / Player's Handbook
  • Part II - Background (old version: Part 2: Praemal + Part 3: Organisations)
  • Index


This contains introduction, background, a player's guide, world, races, religions and organisations.

The player's guide is a good introduction to players. The rest should be kept away from them. If you would have bought a printed / hardcover version you'd still need a PDF of the player's guide, I guess.

The only gripe I have is a minor one, but I would have liked some more information on the world. It's okay as a background, but I want more more more!

You have two options, religion wise. Either go 'monotheistic' or throw in everything and the kitchen sink. Although there is an 'official' faith (the church of Lothian) there are countless other gods and faiths. Go either way, or set up your own conflict, take your pick. Monte Cook was wise to stay away from even suggesting such a conflict, but it might be an interesting angle for DM's to explore. As a D&D player we all should realize it is a game, and the religions pictured in the game provide game mechanics and background flavor, no more, no less.

The 'Organisations' section provides a framework for adversaries and sympathizers, forces that aid or hamper the players' characters. An experienced DM should have a great time constructing larger arcs and sinister plots which the players will only discover over time... if they survive 😈


I've added some thicker colored paper as chapter titles, also added the extended TOC (so there's the original 3 page TOC, and another 12 pages of extended TOC.)

There were quite a few differences in the early chapters in section titles etcetera, but fortunately the actual information / content is the same, even the page numbers are the same.

Ptolus includes an index, but I've modified / re-edited the 'extended' index and added it to the end. Unfortunately it had to be rotated to keep it legible (lot's of cut and paste using the released PDFs, would have been better if I would have had access to a word or text file, but it worked out well enough in the end).


Custom spine:

Custom back pages on thicker paper, colors were picked to match the color tabs of the original, as much as possible. These back pages show a little extra TOC:

Note: the original stuff was color-laser printed. Some pages were printed on a monochrome laser, all the inserts and extras were printed on an inkjet, and over time I used different qualities of paper (thickness, smoothness). Even the white differs from sheet to sheet. To make things look more natural I deliberately inserted some extra heavy sheets of colored paper, and that worked out well. I just have to make sure that my fingers are always perfectly dry... inkjet, remember?

Chapter page on thicker colored paper... Yeah, that's a lot of ink / toner:

Original 'highlighted' pages, this thing really feels like a tourist guide:

Original (top) and extended (bottom) TOC:

Extended (left) and original (right) index / locales / list of characters:

Book II - Ptolus - Districts

Book II

  • Map
  • Part III - City Guide (old version: Part 4: Districts of the City Volume 1 + Part 5: Volume 2)


This book contains everything 'above ground' with the exception of the Spire. It's the part which resembles a travel guide the most. Each sections details another part of town, with sights, buildings, characters, and countless plot-hooks.

Obviously, this is the book I like best 😇

Lots of information, lots of hooks. Some locations are described in detail, some other locations are left up to the DM to work out.

From a graphical / tourist perspective this is the best book. I can read it forever...


Before the actual contents I inserted a two page spread with the Ptolus map, and some other few tidbits from other parts, including a custom 'district' finder and (what I consider) an important single page from the Delver's Guild discussing 'vertical Ptolus'. It's all too easy to ignore the immense spire and how it dominates the horizon.

Like everywhere I've added a few chapter titles on thicker colored paper, inserted appropriate pages from the sketchbook, stuff I found online, and from Secrets. I also copied and inserted a few pages from other parts of the Ptolus book(s) to provide additional information, making it an even more appealing 'travel guide' 😉


Gold printed spine:

Front chapter page on thicker (blue) paper:

The guidebook vibes of the arena:

I liked the 3D view of the Delver's Quarter from the handouts, so inserted it here. To keep in the guidebook flavor, and to highlight / identify inserts I added colored bars on top and bottom of all custom inserts. These also conveniently hide the different page numbering, headers and footers 😅

There are no bars on the pages I took from the Ptolus Sketchbook. I've kept these pages mostly neutral, only added a small description at the top of each page, with wording matching the rest of the Ptolus 'travel guide':

Multi page 'spread' artwork of the original:

Book III - Ptolus - Below & Above

Book III

  • Part IV - Below the City (old version: Part 7: Beneath The Streets)
  • Part V - Above the City (old version: Part 9: The Spire)
  • Part VI - Living in Ptolus (old version: Part 6: DM's Companion)
  • Part VII - Running a Ptolus Campaign (old version: Part 8: Adventures)
  • Handouts
  • Appendices
  • Index


Everything underground, as well as all about the spire that towers above the city. The book continues with two sections for the DM, containing all information regarding campaigning in Ptolus.

Below the City details the 'undercity'. In one version it's called Below the City, in another Below the Streets. (I like the latter title better.) There's quite a bit of information, but I was expecting more details, or at least more maps. It is perfectly serviceable, but just doesn't have the 'oomph' effect that Districts does.

In some ways the section Above the City aka The Spire (again two different titles, depending on the version of Ptolus you obtained) suffer the same issue. There's quite a bit of information, but not all of it is 'hard'. Map wise close to nothing, but there's still enough to do. When you think about it, the Spire is the most defining feature of the city of Ptolus. You could build complete campaigns around flying monsters, airborne steeds, bases by third parties created high above the city, conflicts with the 'other' inhabitants of the Spire, and so forth. If there's one chapter that deserves a lot more it's this one.

The old titles of the remaining chapters were somewhat confusing. The new titles Living in Ptolus and Running a Ptolus Campaign are much better describing the contents.

I was expecting some ready-to-run / fully fledged out adventure to be included, but there isn't. Well, there is some stuff in the Running a Ptolus Campaign section, but it's not 'new DM friendly'. Not a big problem as most people interested in this kind of product would be either more than capable to come up with something themselves, or are just in it for the 'travel guide' part. And there's always Night of Dissolution in Book IV...

There are some references to other Monte Cook material, but none overly disturbing / annoying, and easy enough to work around.


The usual colored chapter headers and only a few inserts from other sources. I decided to add some of the handouts to this book, as they contained lists of events, a calendar, and other information that might come in handy for the DM.

I also duplicated the (extended) index from Book I.

This made Book III the fattest tome, but I couldn't see a way around that. I considered splitting off the DM part, but in the end decided against it. Getting four books binded was enough of an investment...


All that purple goodness...

Exploded view of the undermarket:

Prison area:

Jabel Shammar:

The DM's companion actually contains a section on law and crime:

Chaositech (I've seen that artwork elsewhere):

Some adventure threads:

There are quite a few handouts, even things like a calendar, a list of yearly events, or a newspaper:

Book IV - Delver's Dissolution

Book IV

  • Nights of Dissolution - an adventure
  • Secrets of the Delver's Guild - a collection of information, tidbits and adventure hooks
  • Bonus Map Pack


This is a combination of the adventure The Night of Dissolution and Secrets of The Delver's Guild. I've also added stuff from the Bonus Map Pack. It's the least useful of the four books, to be honest, as the majority of the information can be found elsewhere, especially as I copied and inserted much of this material elsewhere 😇

I haven't run the adventure Night of Dissolution yet, so cannot comment on it. It's an adventure. 'Nuff said.

More interesting is Secrets of the Delvers' Guild. At first glance it seems a bit pointless, just loose pages of individual notes, sometimes duplicating stuff found elsewhere, sometimes fleshing out things just a little bit. more. But... when you go through them they turn out to be a treasure trove of ideas. Yes, the artwork is often duplicated, but the text is (90%) new.

I decided to add many of these to the Ptolus 'core' books, trying to insert them in some appropriate place. Most of those inserts ended up in Book II, but some went elsewhere.

You might skip on the Bonus Map Pack. It mostly reproduces (variants of) other earlier material in a larger scale.



From the full adventure module Night of Dissolution:

I edited some pages from Secrets of the Delvers' Guild and inserted them in the other books. I think the page called 'Vertical Ptolus' is an essential page and should have had a much more prominent place, as the Spire is what defines the city.

Custom back page on thicker (light)green paper:

I think you can tell I like this Ptolus thing quite a bit 😎


Absolutely worth it, though the full version is awfully expensive... $147... ouch. Or worse, a friggin' (and completely unreasonable) 226 euro!

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