Sunday, May 19, 2019

The City of Hex: The Late Baroque CSIO

If you read and enjoyed my post on the City State of the Invincible Overlord, you all need to go read this post right now by Jonathan Newell on the Bearded Devil blog. It talks about his method for preparing and running his gorgeously mapped city of Hex.

Bearded Devil, you are bringing into reality what I glimpsed as a possibility only gestured at by the City State of the Invincible Overlord. There's a lot to learn from Jonathan's experiment with Hex. For comparison's purpose, let's start with the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The CSIO has a gorgeous and detailed map, full of cramped shops, narrow alleys, and open plazas.

It uses this street map as the template for play, since it is designed to run at the level of micro-geography of the city. In fact, the map doesn't even divide the city into neighborhoods--as though such distinctions are too large scale to be useful in play. About a third of the buildings are keyed, and every shop, tavern, and temple is filled with leveled NPCs (some colorful) and abounds with rumors and opportunities for adventures. Different streets have their own random encounters mechanic built in giving a sense of the character of the city at the level of streets.

I think this approach was born out of the best kind of creative thinking, extrapolating from early dungeon play, and essentially imagining a sword & sorcery city at dungeon scale, except instead of fighting monsters you get up to capers, heists, arena fighting, bar fights, and general hijinks, a version of what (to paraphrase Jeff Rients) Conan and Lando Calrissian might get up to if they found themselves bored on a hot afternoon in Lankhmar.

The possibility that I glimpsed in the CSIO is of an entire campaign plumbing the depths of an inexhaustible wealth of delicious, imaginative, city material. Where, in some sense, the subject of the game is the city itself, and the goal is a sort of carnal knowledge of the overwhelming built environment, where the players come to literally know the texture of its streets, the little nooks and crannies, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of its myriad secrets. Where the player would know exactly what it looked like to gaze across the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures into the Park of Obscene Statues, or that beneath Boot & Strap on Barter Street, the shop of notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye, they might exchange news with bandits and blackguards over a cup of ale and roast pig, provided they weren't elves(!), before coming out in such and such a spot in the undercity.

In the perhaps imperfect language I have recently developed for trying to talk about what's fun about this sort of thing, we can say the CSIO was created with the idea that city exploration might provide the pleasures of secrecy & discovery in a sense modeled on exploring a megadungeon. Since my own infatuation with city exploration IRL is premised on a romantic but absolutely true idea that cities are repositories of endless secrets and anarchic human-wrought wonders, this idea really gripped me. How could it not?

But one deep feature of the CSIO is that it is designed for low prep gaming. It uses an absurdly fiddly, but extraordinarily flexible (once you grasp it) system of generic random encounters (the system is also in the Ready Ref Sheets). This system is intended to combine with the immense system of loosey-goosey location-based rumors and detailed keyed locations to generate endless possibilities for adventure in an improvisational mode. It invites the kind of play I've been using it for with my son and his cousins. Did I mention that in the last session they fast talked their way into Liar Mukang's Pleasure Dome, escaping by a hair's breadth laden with his riches on the back of a gold dragon? And that I did zero prep for that session? I can report that the CSIO works as intended, at least with the 10-13 crowd. [Note: Liar Mukang and his pleasure dome is hell-of-racist. It was a nice teaching moment with the kids. We got to have the fun of the adventure AND talk about orientalism afterwards.]

It is striking that the improvisational style of CSIO is in some tension with the ideal being gestured towards by the detailed micro-geographical approach. There's something hilariously incongruous about juxtaposing the detailed geographical detail and the generic nature of the encounter tables: we go from the notorious bootmaker Karugy One-Eye with 3 levels in fighter and his bigoted ogre wife, complete with the rumor that two drunken rogues are slumped over a staff of power at a horse tie, to this encounter you might roll: a noble wants to hire you. It works perfectly well as a package, with the detailed geography and entries providing a structure that works as a skeleton on which to hang the maximally swingy improvisational encounters and adventures. But one way to look at this combination is as a possible fault line in the CSIO. We can then think of approaches breaking one way or the other.

Vornheim (I know, I know) ditched the micro-geography and keyed locations for a vastly more flavorful set of systems of procedural generation of the physical city itself, underwriting zero prep improvisational play to a higher degree. Logan Knight's Corpathium followed in this direction still further, supplemented with flavorful neighborhood based random encounter tables that moved the unit of the city from the street to the district. The experiment was to see whether we could replace the obsessive micro-geographical detail of the CSIO and its less successful progeny with methods of procedural generation to create the open sense of a truly vast city. Although those attempts succeeded at doing what they were trying to do, and so were a genuine advance, I think they missed the charm of the CSIO, conflating its approach with the boring enumeration of useless information that characterized later city products.

Hex breaks the other way, opting to dial up to 11 the intense, loving pre-generation of physical city as a boundless source of adventure. The game is run as a reverse West Marches campaign, with a shifting cast of players who set their own agendas in a sandbox consisting (almost) exclusively of the city itself for each session by voting in two polls, one to schedule a game and the other to set the agenda for the session (which they can edit to introduce whatever options they want). Jonathan then preps different areas and NPCs in the city as much as he can in advance, as in a West Marches game the DM would prep the portions of the hex map and adventure locations the players planned to visit. This approach of incremental city creation, with the prep racing ahead of the players via polling is an interesting approach. Over time, the city has taken on a life of its own and now is sufficiently developed that Jonathan says he has a pretty good idea what's going on in every neighborhood, and often at the street level. Which is nuts in the best kind of way.

As with the CSIO, Hex has a detailed map, allowing for play that is focused on the texture and microgeography of the city. If the CSIO map is pretty, the one for Hex is drop dead gorgeous. I mean take a look at this map fragment:

The Cultist Quarter & Enigma Heap
Jonathan runs the game with a huge version of the map rolled out on the table, which is how I run CSIO too (albeit with a smaller map). This emphasizes the freedom of movement for the players, and the city as a space to be moved through and explored. Unlike in the CSIO, where a lot of the game is about getting from point A to point B via the streets, Jonathan abstracts from movement between quadrants of the city, zooming at the level of the destination neighborhood. Using the polls to give him advance notice, he preps the descriptions for the streets and keys for the buildings and NPCs. Given how detailed his map is, he is able to print blown up versions of individual neighborhoods. Like so:

He also draws a lot of the crazy neighborhood blocks of clustered buildings that the players are likely to visit. Here are a couple of his drawings. How could you not be curious about each and every store, resident, floor and so on?

I find this aspect of his city especially remarkable. By employing his formidable artistic skills, as well as the aesthetic of a city of visually striking, quirky, simultaneously organic and jury-rigged clusters of buildings into blocks, he is able to give a rich texture to individual city blocks. I've never seen anything like this, but it sure would render memorable all sorts of locations in the city! He can literally just say to his players: this is what it looks like. This is what the prep of an adventure location might look like:

Obviously the city is extraordinarily flavorful, a place abounding in wonders, a sort of Dickensian, fey touched, demon infested, New Crobuzon. I think it would be a total blast to play there. Given my dispositions, imaginative burn out, and lack of mapping and artistic skills, it's clear that I will never be able to accomplish anything like this. Which is why I find this so fascinating. I can't wait to read more about how you run this game Jonathan. Perhaps one day Zyan Above can be a fraction of what you are making here.


  1. Seems something China Mieville would run at his table.

    1. Mieville, Pratchett, Leiber, and Lovecraft are probably the biggest influences on the game from a literary perspective, with Vandermeer crooning something about fungi off in a mouldy corner.

  2. Love this - I like the idea of using the City state map as a play aid. The Hex stuff is both inspiring and gives me a feeling on not ever really prepping enough. On a totally pedantic aside the funny thing is Baroque city planning was all about creating straight roads to link various places of importance in a city (Rome is the great example but places like Washington DC are a later manifestation of this planning style). So a real life point crawl if you will.

    1. It's true, Hex is sort of the opposite of how an Enlightenment-era city planner would want things - the physical geography of the city is more medieval than anything. I'm actually doing a map now where I'm trying for big straight lines in places, without destroying the sense of anarchy and energy that's probably important to my maps working.

    2. That's one of the beauties of how the old baroque planning worked in a place like Rome. The big straight lines really contrast with the much more free form medieval city (which of course is built upon a palimpest of the ancient city) and make each part more vivid. Of course how to translate that into a satisfying in-game experience is a little trickier.

  3. Those are some beautiful pieces of game art - I still have a hard time with the idea of city as keyed location, but I can't write minimal keys to save my life so that might be part of it.

    Alternatively a city system based on tables and expense with built in keyed locations that require discovery via expenditure and faction interaction still seems appealing to me in that it preserves the distinction between haven and dungeon better. I'm not doing the work to make that happen right now though and Mr. Newell appears to be doing something amazing!

  4. I'm very honoured by the writeup, Ben! I'm planning out additional posts in the same vein, maybe starting with one about the actual process of doing physical maps, as I've been doing a lot more of it recently - my players have, with my blessing, broken the "reverse West Marches" contract after some 40 sessions for a sojourn.

    1. I really look forward to this series. This seems like an experiment that's important, like West Marches was important.