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?


  1. This is, without doubt, the most interesting piece of writing on the (hard to find and usually neglected) CSWE I have seen - bravo! It is an interesting way to look at the city, and captures why it is both fascinating and ultimately frustrating.

    Your concept of Viridistan is also similar to my campaign in the City of Vultures, a metropolis ruled, and to a large extent defined by a network of interconnected conspiracies. In my case, the city was built on three pillars:

    1) The unifying logic of conspiracies (which served to integrate the other stuff, and was in fact a hierarchy of deeper and deeper secrets leading down the rabbit hole);
    2) A number of detailed locations, from parts of the undercity to locales associated with various factions, and a few incidental places;
    3) A comprehensive encounter system to cover adventuring in the city streets and introduce variety.

    It worked reasonably well, but sadly, it eventually ran out of steam as the PCs outgrew the local power level and ended up resorting to a level of violence which basically dispelled all possibilities of a non-violent approach.

    Which is to say, I can well envision a look at CSWE which would work this way, as a relationship map with lots of procedural elements, and even a lot of Bledsawisms - just applied to social space instead of physical locations.

  2. I remember the City of the Vultures from your article in Knockspell! would love to play in your games Melan, they all sound like so much fun. If you ever want to swap material PM me on google plus.

    1. I would like to publish my notes from that campaign, and I will try to serialise it in my fanzine (issue #03 will start with a related, but self-contained adventure) - very little of it has actually been released so far, although we had a campaign journal going for a while with Premier.

      I would gladly trade notes, but for a slight difficulty: mine are written in Hungarian.

    2. That’s quite an obstacle to communication :) I look forward to reading it in Echoes From Fomalhaut.

  3. This is what the OSR is all about.

  4. A fascinating read. My parents bought me CSWE for xMas in 1981 and while I found it compelling reading I never ran any RPG sessions using it, probably for many of the reasons you highlight although I'd never been able to put my finger on them until now

  5. I have to confess that, having read your excellent and comprehensive analysis of CSWE, I found myself, like ancient Zeuxis and Chryisippus, the victim of paroxysms of laughter, from your wicked prose. It is everything (good, bad, and ugly) that you decribe. Thanks for the nostaligic revisit.