Thursday, April 19, 2018

City State of The World Emperor: Lessons from a Failed Experiment

Cover art by Jannel Jaquays

Behold Viridistan, City State of the World Emperor, demon ruled metropole of a thousand intrigues! Look upon his Vasthosts of soldiers in fine battle dress, and his Equithrongs of archers, slaying from afar with their red metal arrows that cut like scythes, forged from carbellium drawn from the heart of a vast meteor! And yet, look more closely at the City of Spices' once exquisite alien architecture, and you will see that beneath the fanfare it is crumbling, as though consumed by a gnawing hunger. How riddled is the city with traitors, like a fine mansion, now honeycombed by termites. Look how the enemies of Viridistan--not least the Invincible Overlord!--have grown bold, and win unthinkable victories.

In a lot of ways, the City State of the World Emperor, published in 1980, is better than the City State of the Invincible Overlord that preceded it in 1976. It's conception is amazing. Viridistan is ruled by the self-proclaimed World Emperor, Huatulin Seheitt and his Empress Murielle Eidn. They are the last of the Viridians, an ancient, wicked race, tall and green-skinned scions of "remnants of the quarrelsome gods of the Uttermost Wars, Wild Men of the Confederate Tribes, and mermaids of the Trident Gulf". Emperor Seheitt is also God-Priest of Armadad Bog, a hideous entity of the depths. Part of Seheitt's papal palace is a horror choked submerged dungeon, where Armadad Bog has his watery throne room, dripping in Emeralds. Armadad Bog has enslaved the mermaids of the Trident Gulf, and in the World Emperor's inner chambers stand the tanks for "visiting" mermaids. It's kind of amazing.

And yet, for all its brilliance, the product is a failure. To be clear, I think it's brilliance is great enough that you should probably own it, and if you ever play in the Wilderlands, it will be absolutely essential to your campaign. And yet it doesn't work. I believe that part of the explanation is simple: the main author, Craighton Hippenhammer, felt himself forced to follow the template the CSIO laid down without understanding how that template worked. In fact, as I learned recently by corresponding with him on Facebook, he wasn't much of a gamer, and had only met Bledsaw at the Decatur Public Library where he worked. When he got him on board for the project, Bledsaw had already sketched out portions of the city, and finished some of the key entries, including, I suspect the entries on the city state history and the World Emperor.

Furthermore, as we will see, the template, so perfect for the CSIO made much less sense applied to the CSWE. This is interesting, since it suggests that the way we design our D&D city should depend on the city. Another part of the explanation is that Hippenhammer lacks the wild, banging away at his typewriter, hyped up on 1000 CCs of caffeine, elliptical genius of Bledsaw's terse prose.

Things Bob Bledsaw would never have written:

Sanitation Department
                            Class Align LVL HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Pike the Lefty     FTR   LE     4      20   10  6    18    9      8      11      8       10         Lance
Salman Rudee    FTR   CE     3      16    8   4    11    5      10     8       9        8          Spear

Pike supervises the cleanup crew in the city and arrest residents who continually throw garbage into the streets. Hires rodent specialists when they are needed. PROB 10% of sanitation workers contracting dysentary; 30% PROB contracting fever rash; but pay is good. Salman Rudee, in charge of the Street Scoopers Sections, sees that the constant traffic of animals is cleaned up after; he has a special detachment in each stable area.

This is the kind of fantasy trivia that has no purpose in a gaming product, and of which the CSIO contains exactly 0%. Does Salman Rudee keep a "special detachment" to shovel horseshit? Wow, that's interesting. And Pike the Lefty pays pretty well for rodent specialists...but they might catch dysentary. Classic. Let 1000 adventures bloom.

Even some entries that have real promise lack that Bledsaw verve. Take this one:

Barracks XIV Cavalry (LT)   

                            Class Align LVL HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Sasabonsum        FTR   LE     4      27   7    5   14     11    12    8       9        10         Scimitar     
The Duelist

An accomplished duelist, Sass is collecting the scalps of his victims on the mess hall wall. It is thought that he provokes many of these one-sided duels as a way of alternately feeding his ego and venting his frustrations. Like many other members of the realm army he is somewhat superstitious and will often postpone a duel until the omens and soothsayers feel that the time is right. His one big quirk is that he cannot abide to see any weapon or amor which is not in prime condition. This has saved him and his men on many occasions.

Here's how Bledsaw would have written that same entry:

Accomplished duelist; collects scalps of victims on mess hall wall. Superstitious, consults omens and soothsayers before every duel. He is meticulous about the condition of the arms and armor of his men.

The Bledsaw style version is less bloated. But it's terseness is also full of possibilities. Is Sass a serial killer who slays when the stars are right? Does he have an anal obsession with fastidious armor? Or is he just a grade A asshole? I mean what's up with this guy? This is the kind of entry where every detail lets you riff. An encounter with the Bledsaw version of this guy is going to be memorable; an encounter with the Hippenhammer version is not. The point of a Bledsaw description of an NPC or locale is not to do the imagining for the DM, but to spark her imagination. What you want from a description is just enough interesting material to get improvisation going and no more. It's a neat trick once you see how it's done, and it's not that hard to replicate. (I just did it!) But enough about prose style--on to the next point.

Different Kinds of City Make for Different Kinds of Play 

The City of the State of the World Emperor is not only the enemy of the City State of the Invincible Overlord, it is its opposite. The CSIO is an anarchic mess of a fantasy city, bursting with violent energy and sloppy juxtaposition. It is ruled from above with a light touch. It's the kind of place where you can pick up a rumor about a haunted mansion over on Festival Street while buying some illegal elven wine, and then get robbed by a minotaur on your way over to perform an exorcism. It's that kind of crazy. The City State of the World Emperor stands as order to this chaos.

For example, the text tells that the World Emperor is quietly replacing nobles with demons, about whom it says, "The demons have to look like common men and women, because most CSWE inhabitants do not care for strange differences in their neighbors." That's right, the main objection CSWE inhabitants have to demons is that they look like weird foreigners. The text also tells us that "The World Emperor loves order  and hates disturbances." Public disturbances are put down ruthlessly and will draw guards in 2.5 minutes (less than 3 rounds!). Even the map is rigid, as though someone had taken the CSIO map and smoothed it out, regularizing all its little quirky turns and alleys until a neat order prevailed.

The whole idea of this city is that everything of interest lies beneath the facade of order. It is a city of petty bureaucrats, yes, but also secret societies of cruel aristocrats, endless scheming rivalries between evil clerics and generals, and the plotting of hidden revolutionaries. It is a place where the World Emperor feels the need to maintain the upper hand by replacing his own nobles one by one with demons. And who knows what those infernal bastards want! In it's ancient, bureaucratic, and hierarchical manner, it reminds me most of a city from Tekumel. The same sorts of faction play, and shady patrons, double-dealing, and inscrutable cultural politics will be at the center of gaming in Viridistan.

The text, perhaps written by Hippenhammer, tries to stress this to players. He offers them this advice:

Gathering Information

Talk with everybody, being especially friendly with the employees of inns, taverns, and eateries. If possible, get them drunk, or otherwise in an open frame of mind. Observing marketplace activity can be extremely helpful. Encourage the relating of rumors, new and old. Learn about sudden unusual behavior. Concentrate on getting to know persons of one's own rank, position, and interests. Talk with the right people. Books and libraries (the literary kind) may also be advantageous. 

In Virdistan it's about who you know, and from among this subset, the tiny universe of those you can trust. It's all a game of cat in mouse in this ancient city of brooding secrets. This is a fun premise for play. CSWE tries to foster this with its tables of encounters, so different from those in the CSIO. It's all "Someone has urgent private information for a player," or "So and so is desperately searching for a prophet," or "A child is squeezing into a small space to spy on someone," or "The guards want to ask you some questions." It doesn't quite work, because it isn't quite the stuff of adventures, but one can imagine a good version of the encounter tables that would do better. CSWE also introduces an awful mini-game for "establishing comaraderie", reminiscent of the sexist mini-game for picking up women in CSIO, where the players has to perform a set sequence of actions to gain "levels" of comaraderie with an NPC. For example, two jokes plus a drink gets you "Level 1". Again, we could imagine less mechanically awkward and more productive rules for acquiring contacts in the city. (The Nightmares Underneath has some excellent ideas about this kind of thing.)

Hippenhammer was compelled to include entries for endless shops, military barracks, petty bureaucrats, and taverns over two separate books numbering 160 pages (with a third separate book for the Wilderlands Campaign Hexmap 6!). Furthermore, the locations leave blanks for the Judge to fill in their street locations. It doesn't bother putting them on the map, because, frankly, who cares where they are. Getting from point A to point B is not an adventure in itself, nor can one visit a notorious bootmaster married to a bigoted ogress to get shoe repairs. This lack of location gives the lie to the whole enterprise: the truth is that there is no point in this city to the micro-geographical knowledge provided by the CSIO.

And since the establishments aren't themselves sources of adventure, there's no point to detailing them all either. Hippenhammer told me in our brief Facebook conversation that he had trouble understanding why he was filling in all these trivial detail in the seemingly endless numbered locations. Partly this may be a lack of understanding of the model provided by the CSIO, but I think it may partly be a real lack of fit with the city as described. Seen from this perspective, one main problem with the CSWE is that it mechanically applies a template that is suitable for the specific style of play of the CSIO to a city better suited to a different style of play.

It is possible to imagine a better executed version of the template, that has the quirky Bledsaw energy in all the location entries, but tries to hew closer to the concept of Viridistan. Perhaps, instead of rumors, the entries for the establishments might say what secrets the owners of the establishment know, and who their allies and rivals are. This would certainly be neat, a sort of micro-geography of hidden knowledge and webs of relations. But this information would not see nearly as much play as the entries in the CSIO, since walking around the city is not an adventure in itself, so there is much less opportunity to bring the potters and glass-blowers of the city into the fabric of adventure on the fly. Still, I think it maybe could work.

But a more obvious approach for this city than detailing all the shop owners, would be to focus on the description of factions, of central players, of secret societies, and hidden and remarkable locations. We need tables of schemes, and hidden purposes. ("What does the intercepted message say?" "How is he being blackmailed?") On this approach, coming to know Viridistan is not coming to know its byways and alleys, much less its rooftop mazes. Instead, to know this city is to know its secret schemes and the people behind them. With Bledsaw quality prose, this approach could have produced an amazing city supplement more suited to running games in The City of Spices.

Because play is the thing, a city supplement must focus relentlessly on the facts necessary to enable the Judge's improvisation in this style of play. The ultimate limitation of the City State of the World Emperor is that it doesn't do this.
Druillet, who else?

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.