Thursday, April 5, 2018

City State of the Invincible Overlord: The City as Dungeon Crawl

The City State of the Invincible Overlord is a boisterous sword and sorcery city. It wears its pulp and weird tales roots proudly. It is the product of shameless pastiche. What would happen if Conan were in Lankhmar, and tried to steal an elven jewel from the Temple of Pegana? If that premise sounds appealing, then you just might like this city.

The City State of the Invincible Overlord (CSIO) is one of the gems of the early hobby. It was published in 1976 by Judge's Guild. The map for CSIO was sold originally out of the trunk of Bill Bledsaw's mustang at Gencon IX, along with subscriptions for future installments with a map key and rules for play in the city. Eventually it was sold as a package number, with a guidebook to the city, rules for encounters, ancillary dungeon maps, and the campaign hexmap #1 of their famous Wilderlands setting. You can still buy PDFs of all that here. Rob Conley recently redrew the map in color, and you can nab that here.

The heart of the product is the map of the City State. It is absolutely gorgeous, a thing of real beauty. It's set in a pleasingly complex geography, surrounding the Estuary of Roglaroon, and the Mermist Swamps, giving it a sort of seedy port feel. The map names every major street and plaza, and you can trace the many back alleys, and envision their twists an turns. It also shows you every single building in the city. Many (roughly 1 in 4) of these buildings have names and keyed entries.

The reason that the map is the heart of the CSIO is that it approaches the city as a giant dungeon. The idea is that it is full, dripping, almost implausibly exploding, with adventure. Just walking from one neighborhood to another in order to visit some shops will embroil a party in numerous exploits. The way that a dungeon map is the heart of a dungeon crawl adventure, and is a kind of known environment (to the DM), coiled like a spring with possibilities, and filled with fun to be had around every turn--this is like that--except bigger, more open, and so looser, and more free wheeling, dependent on chance and a greater level of improvisation.

When I say that the city is lovingly detailed, so that you can know every corner and alley way, and can catalogue at least a large fraction of its more interesting establishments, I don't mean that it is like a fantasy encyclopedia. Unlike many other city products of a later vintage, moved by a similar fantasy of totally knowing a city, the CSIO has no patience for extensive trivia. The entries are organized by street name. They are terse and suggestive of a whole scene of action, and have the flavor of something banged out in a fevered pitch on a typewriter. Here is a sample shop entry, under Barter Street. It is, in fact, the second entry in the book:

Boot & Strap
                              Class  Align Lvl HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Karugy One-Eye     FTR   CE     3     13  7    5    13    9      8      14      14     14        +1 Dagger

Notorious Bootmaster -- 28 pairs PROB 20% of fit, 3 GP each (double for Dwarves). Large Battle Axe over counter; Strongbox: 14 SP, 28 CP, 1-6 GP on person. Aliadar, huge Ogre wife: HD 4+1 HP:26 AC:5. Trapdoor to pit opening into tunnels below the city. Four kegs of wine, flask of oil, roast pig, cloak hanging on peg has key to strongbox. Map to 3000 GP hidden in the Despot Ruins. Customers include Bandits, Thieves, and Ogres, NA: 1-6, LVL 1-6 Sign over door 'Elves & Halflings Axe on Sight in Shop'. Rumor: Adolescent Wench is being dragged by her hair south on Slash Street by an Ogre named Gothmag. Rumor: Two drunken Rogues Possessing a Staff of Power are slumped over a horse tie (actually two dying Sages). 

This is pretty good stuff. A one-eyed notorious bootmaster and his huge, bigoted, ogre wife have a front shop selling boots. It smells of a pig roast and always seems full up with a rough customers, drinking wine, and gossiping. In reality, it conceals an entryway into the undercity, and these patrons are all smugglers, kidnappers, and bandits, who stop on their way out after work to get a plate of roast pork and a cup of wine from the underground roasting pit tended by the brutal ogre matron.

Notice that Karugy is a bootmaster who happens to have levels as a fighter. Now you might think this was specific to the criminal operation in this establishment--he is, after all, married to an ogress--but you'd be wrong. Every potter and barmaid in the City-State has levels in some class, usually fighter or thief. The assumption seems to be that everyone can hold their own, and the PCs are nothing special. This is also one of the many ways that the CSIO takes the mechanics of D&D incredibly literally, perhaps more literally than intended.

Notice too the system of rumors. Most entries have one, but this entry, being full of gossiping miscreants, has two. The rumors provides the dungeon master with something to slip in to the conversation if the opportunity presents itself, providing a sudden adventure seed to be followed up on should the players be interested. In this case, the rumors are probably what the cliental are discussing when the PCs enter the shop. Obviously this feature has to be handled with discretion and a light touch by the DM. It is something to liven up the scene, something we can assume the NPCs know about, and the source of potential good fun. But it should be used sparingly and introduced organically as makes sense.

These rumors like almost everything in the CSIO are designed to introduce adventure primarily by providing tools for DM improvisation. But the main tool for improvisational play is the elaborate system for city encounters. You check for an encounter once per turn in the city. There are two sorts of encounter check, rolled on alternate turns. The first is a percentile chance of a special encounter for each named street. It runs from the prosaic, for example, on Barter Street where the Boot & Strap establishment is located:

                                              Barter Street
PROB 38% chance of being surrounded by Street Urchins demanding 1 CP each to go away

To the the fun:

                                              Festival Street
PROB 20% of 'Razing' (Harassment) By Party of Nobles, MA 17-22, LVL1-12; (Attack only if insulted)

To the bizarre:

                                             Prefect Street
PROB 10% of An Efreet Jumping Down From A Roof And Stealing any Item.

This is a neat mechanic that provides a quirky texture to the city, giving identity and life to the different streets, that come complete with vermin infestations, mysterious fogs, festivals, and roustabouts of all kinds.

The second sort of encounter is the more usual 1 in 6 chance, rolled then on a table, or rather a series of tables. Most of the encounters that result are generic, e.g., "A slaver attacks the party out of religious hatred," or, "An Amazon propositions the party to search [for something or someone missing]." In play, I've found this generic quality works very well, allowing one to adapt the encounter to the specifics of the ongoing situation, and providing just enough material to work with for purposes of improvisation. The tables have enough variety that I don't think they would get old. (In full nested combination, the tables produce thousands upon thousands of possible encounters.) They have consistently produced great fun at my table.

However, it took me a long time to grok the system, which worships at the altar of Rube Goldberg. The procedure is this. First you roll on a chart called "Type of Encounter" (1d6) 1: Attacked by surprise 2: Attacked 3: Slanders/Insult 4: Questions Players 5: Propositions Players 6: Special encounter. (There is, apparently, a lot of fighting in the CSIO.)

Special encounters have their own table (in some cases with nested further tables) which is fun, it can be anything from having a brick dropped on your head to having a town crier announce that the city is being attacked by legions of orcs. For 1-5 you then roll on the second chart "Who Encountered" 1-4: Men 5: Unusual 6: Per Quarter.

Each of these results requires you to roll on a separate table. If you roll 1-4 then you next roll on a "Social Level" chart which is a 1d6 and 1d20 giving you a range of possible folks, grouped by fanciness, with healthy quantities of town guard types thrown in to the matrix. There are further charts for a result of 5: Unusual people, and for encounters with 6: Per Quarter which sends you to a shorter table with the sorts of people you would expect to bump in to in the quarter of the city where the encounter happens. There are further charts like "Attack Reasons" or even "Who are the Vigilantes Searching for".

It could happen that you have to make up to 5 rolls, the first to determine that there is an encounter, and four separate rolls on different tables to determine, for example, that "Vigilantes are searching for a dwarf". Another problem is that women are almost never encountered. When they are encountered, they're supposed to initiate this weird mini-game where the PCs can pick them up through repartee rolls supplemented by gifts. This is especially strange in a city where the women encountered almost all have levels and seem to be just as badass as the men. I have the feeling that it is much more in keeping with the CSIO to have a looser and freewheeling sexuality to match the 300 religions that the guidebook tells us are practiced in the city. If ogres are marrying notorious one-eyed boot-makers, and S&M shops abound (see the entries on the fine establishments of Hedonist Street) then clearly anything goes in this city. At any rate, that's how I'd run it with adults.

I have to say, even with all the rolling on sub-tables and layout flaws, it has run like a dream for me at the table. So far I've run 8 (short) sessions with my son (9) and his cousins (10 and 13). They have gotten up to some memorable shenanigans. Here is one chain of events, that played out over three sessions, all the product of improvisation using the encounter tables, and the map and key.

When the party first got to the City-State (that's another tale!), one of the first things they stumbled across was auction in Slave Market Plaza. Their reaction to this trafficking in human wares was, "Slavery? Hell no! We are going to make these people pay!" So they came up with the brilliant scheme of selling the beefy half-orc fighter in the party as a slave (for a tidy little sum), and then using him as an inside man to rob his purchaser. I played up the slave-owner's villainy (he was a noble called Lugo the Cruel). In the end, the party fomented a slave revolt, during which they looted his mansion on Twilight Road.

In a later session, one of the slave's they freed, a loyal follower called "Lobster" because of a birthmark on his head, was slain by an attack from an ogre who came barreling out of an alley and took umbrage at the fact that Lobster was in his way. The players had really loved Lobster, and they remembered that a candlemaker named Remy on By Water road had offered to sell them a candle that allowed one to speak with the dead. Along the way they were propositioned by a noble wearing a mask, who said he had seen them fight the ogre, and offered them a hefty sum if they would use the same set of skills to kill a minotaur gladiator,  who was kept in some apartments of the undercity beneath the Sea Hawk Tavern on Regal Street. They agreed to the deal intending to swindle the mysterious noble.

When they had purchased the skull-shaped candle and conversed with Lobster in its eery red light, they asked him two questions. (1) You know the city pretty well, where can we get a fake minotaur head? Answer, "Try the mask maker on Festival Street, near the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures". (2) Is there any way we can bring you back from the dead? Answer, "For three days I dwell on the shores of river styx before I can be ferried across by the boatman Charon. During that time you may beseech Harmakhis, God of the Dead, to release me. He appears each night to receive a sacrifice in the bowels of his temple near the Square of the Gods." When they asked each question, I briefly looked at the map and consulted a couple of entries and voila sweet, sweet adventure hooks appeared. This is the kind of improvisational adventure, focused on the micro-geography of the city, that I think the CSIO is designed to foster.

I am moved by the approach of treating a city as a kind of freewheeling mega-dungeon. It taps into deep fantasies of mine of possessing a kind of carnal knowledge of the secrets of a city, a seemingly endless world of human creation that abounds in secrets and wonders. What can I say, I grew up in the East Village in the 1980's, and fell in love with the labyrinth of ruined splendor called Pittsburgh in the 2000's. How could I not want this?

Sadly, I think to really scratch that itch, the CSIO would need to be four, or even six times as big as it is. When I look at the map, I can't help but think to myself that the city is not big enough to sustain the sort of illusion it produces. The city is larger than life, and it is supposed to be crammed with every possible kind of intrigue and adventure--and 300 religions goddamnit--but it's the size of half the Greenwich Village. I want to prepare for the game by losing myself in the City-State's alleys and byways, to take a taste here and there, knowing that I could never hold it all in my mind. I want the thing to be big enough that the players feel that they could never explore all of it, and for the information they acquire about the city to be a big point of play. I want the shit to be deep.

Since it struggles with information and layout design as it is, to handle that quantity of material, it would need a serious redesign. The ideal form, I think, would be a clickable PDF of the city map, where you could click on each building to pull up the short entry if it has one, and you could fill in it whatever notes and information you want to add. Of course, part of the beauty of the original map is its lovingly hand-drawn, organic quality. We would need to keep the charm of that rather than opting for the smoothed over, artificially lit, hellscape that is produced by most digitized map design. At the very least, there should be more order to the map key, consistent use of the map coordinates to locate keyed buildings, and a quickly accessible index that let's you locate an establishment by name.

Another thing my ideal, fantasized CSIO would contain is excellent art, which it is almost entirely lacking in the original form. The ideal artist for the CSIO would be someone with a good pulp sword & sorcery aesthetic, the kind of thing you see in Conan comics by Ernie Chan or Barry Windsor-Smith, or maybe Stephen Fabian, or the sort of sensibility possessed by the artists currently working on the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Erne Chan

In sum, the CSIO is one of the best products of the early wild days of the hobby. Looking at the rules of D&D in a very literal way, and having only dungeon crawling as a model to work with, Bob Bledsaw asked how the play of D&D might be extended to a sword & sorcery city. The City State of The Invincible Overlord is his brilliant if flawed answer. It provides one template for city design: the city as megadungeon, and shows us how it could be done well. Of course, we could do it better still.


  1. Hm. I wonder if it is possible to expand the existing map to be 5-8 times bigger.

  2. With photoshop, anything is possible

  3. If original map had hand-drawn beauty, Photoshop will only do some of the work, I think.

  4. I think you struck on what makes the City State so successful in the way no followup has ever really replicated its genius. It is not only a work bursting with creative ideas, it is one that "translates" D&D's procedures and gameplay to a city, and adds its own subsystems to drive the action. Adventures just emerge and develop from the city's basic texture, and it delivers the feel of a vast metropolis in ways most city guides don't.

    I am doubtful about expanding it, or creating a larger city. Nobody has done it with success. The later JG city states (CSWE and Tarantis, or even Wraith Overlord's failed attempt to map the CSIO's underworld) no longer have that synthetic quality, they no longer bring together so many strains of myth and wild fantasy in one package. I am fairly sure the City State hit some kind of internal limit for these things, and that's how much you can cram into one place.

    1. Melan, you might well be right that this is one of those impossible fantasies, where to get what you want you have to leave behind the conditions of the possibility of producing a workable thing. Maybe it's just a cry in wilderness, "I want more!" It is remarkable that no other product that I'm aware of is like this. You would think it would have been reproduced by now, or even back then by Judges Guild. (As you say, CSWE and Tarantis, much Wraith Overlord, don't do this.) I'm going to be reviewing a bunch of attempts along different lines, so we'll see what else I manage to turn up.

    2. I don't think the Necromancer Games 3e D&D version of the CSIO really succeeded, either - all their edits such as stripping out the rumours to a single table, and adding in Wraith Overlord, didn't really work.

      One issue I have with CSIO is that it's written as an adventure site but if treated as such then unlike traditional dungeon adventuring, there is no safe place to recuperate between expeditions. So the tendency is to devolve it from an adventure site into a default-safe space & go to running specific 'adventures' (eg 'The Slave Master's Party' in Pegasus Magazine), rather than treating the city as a megadungeon/campaign adventure in itself.

    3. How pivotal do you think street-level maps are for a city supplement that captures the feel and sheer adventuring potential of CSIO? What I mean is, do you really run CSIO as a dungeon ("There's a slave market on your left, and a little further ahead a tavern on your right. You can see an intersection beyond that, and you make out the silhouette of a giant tower in the distance. What do you do?")? Is the precise layout just helpful while mentally organising information? Would a point crawl or flowchart suffice or be considered sacrilege?

    4. Ynas Midgard, I did that a bit when they first got to the city to set the mood. But now they have a player's map, so it's not quite that micro. It's more like I'll tell them what the streets are like that they walk down, so that they get a sense of the place, and then we'll adjudicate encounters as they happen. I can see this getting tiresome eventually, but we haven't reached that point yet.

    5. S'mon, the places to rest and recuperate are the home bases of the players, whether staying at an inn or having a place of their own on the map. Right now my players are staying in the tiny apartment of a rat-on-a-stick vendor they charmed. But I see what you mean. One might use some downtime charts and protocols, so that there was a "life in the city" mode when the players weren't getting up to shenanigans. The charts could have some funny results but nothing dangerous or lethal.

    6. I have to agree with Melan. Think about cities in computer games like Skyrim for a moment. In actuality, they're no bigger than tiny villages, but if designed well, they feel so much larger--and actually creating a city "to scale" would thin it out and just make adventuring in it frustrating. The illusion of a vast metropolis is far more important than actually mapping one.

  5. Writing a city book in this style is one of my dream projects! Maybe one day...

  6. If bigger is better, why not running a city using Nolli Map of Roma ? (flash version) (pics)

    1. Wow, that's incredible Jean-Francois Lebreton!

  7. I'm working on a project like this currently:

    1. I am familiar with your project Jonathan Newell. It looks amazing!

  8. I don't remember how well it succeeded at this, but there was a source book for the Valiant Comics RPG (set primarily in San Francisco) which essentially tried to use the real world city, with it's real world history and depth, to do something like this. Again, I don't remember and kind of doubt that it succeeded at doing it at the level you're discussing here (and also the system is more so a "story-game"-style system with very different goals in the first place), but I do think more broadly the idea of using a real city as a point of reference could be useful.

    Anyway, this is really cool, and something I was thinking about before I started my most recent campaign (and first OSR campaign). I like the idea that a town or city or village shouldn't just be a place to drop off loot between adventures, but it should be an adventure unto itself.

    1. I've got to check that out

    2. I actually would like to try out that system one day, but I definitely don't want to oversell the system or that book haha. I believe it's the same system as Shadowrun: Anarchy, which I also have not played. It seems serviceable, but nothing special. Who knows how it plays since I haven't played it yet, but at least philosophically it seems more in the "storygame" camp than the OSR camp.