In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog qualified as the only published adventure, although the armies inside the temple made it unsuitable for dungeon crawls and limited it to the sort of sand-table battles that evolved into Dungeons & Dragons.
So when Decatur, Illinois gamers Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen visited TSR that December, they brought a new idea. Bob asked TSR for authorization to make a line of play aids for D&D players and judges.
Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, recounts what happened next. “Bledsaw told them about his ideas for gamemaster supplements…and the result was laughter. The TSR staff explained to Bledsaw and Owen that gamers wanted games, not supplements, and told them they were more than welcome to publish D&D supplements (and lose money) if they wanted to.”
Bledsaw turned his drafting skills to map a huge city that would become the City State of the Invincible Overlord. He brought the poster maps to Gen Con in 1976. There he canvassed the convention goers, sold out of maps, and offered memberships to the Judges Guild, a subscription to future play aids. Shortly after Gen Con, charter subscribers received a package including the Initial Guidelines Booklet I (I as the Roman 1). The next package included Guidelines Booklet J (J as the letter after I). The guidelines supported the City State with encounter charts, information on social tiers, supplemental rules, and descriptions of a few streets.
In 1977, a retail version of the City State reached stores. The $9 package includes a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.
The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each. The locations offer a treasury of fantasy names. Just the roster of the Mercenaries Guild provides 20 names, and the city has 300 more locations.
The City State resembled the dungeon adventures of the time, densely packed locations with little natural order. The place has 5 bakers, but lacks a miller, brewer, fuller, glazier, wheeler, cooper, fletcher, mason, as well as many other popular boys’ names. Humans dominate the population, but trolls, ogres, and other monsters hold jobs. A shop’s proprietor could be a shapeshifted ogre mage or dragon. The undertaker employs undead. A god lives at his local temple.
Even though a modern product with similar scope might sprawl over 500 or more pages, the City State’s descriptions take fewer than 80 pages. The terse descriptions provide seeds for improvisation rather than details.
Despite the product’s tremendous scope—or perhaps due to it—I struggled to figure out how center a game around the City State. I looked for guidelines booklets A though H, but never found them. Did I need them? Also, I grappled with the question of how to conduct play in the sprawling city.
Nowadays, city adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location or NPC to the next. This allows a focus on key locations. In 1977, no one played D&D that way. Instead, players entered the dungeon or wilderness to explore room by room, hex by hex. The rule books explained how to conduct dungeon and wilderness adventures, water and aerial adventures, but nothing about cities. Cities served as a base to heal and gather supplies before you left for the next adventure. Cities were for bookkeeping.
So how did a DM run a game in the City State? The guidelines seem to imply that characters will wander the city, either shopping for adventuring gear or pursing rumors that will lead to their next adventure. In the course of wandering, they can trigger random encounters, often keyed to the neighborhood.
Basing a night of gaming on shopping or rumor gathering presents a lot of difficulties, mostly for reasons I described in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” Typically these activities offer the players few challenges—except for the rare cases where a level-6, chaotic-evil butcher attacks the party’s dwarf.
The optimal session in the City State finds the players quickly uncovering a rumor and chasing it to a dungeon, or to a plot hook involving a giant, hairy stalker.
The best—and most intimidating—part of the City State came from the rumors. So many provided exciting invitations to adventure. Every storefront seemed like a launching point for an adventure.
As a dungeon master, the rumors made the city even more challenging to run. All the rumors inspired, but they led to adventures that demanded either preparation or more improvisation than I care to attempt. Every rumor promised an adventure that the DM needed to make good. In the Pig & Whistle tavern players learn that a mountain disappeared 120 miles south of the city. I want to play that adventure, but if I’m DM, I don’t want to ad lib it.
For all the product’s creative energy, its seamy side disagreed with my tastes. Even the map shows a goblin reservation. I prefer my monsters dangerous, rather than downtrodden. I certainly do not want to invite analogies between wicked monsters and real human beings who suffered a history of mistreatment.
In addition to a slave trade and many bordellos, the city has a Park of Obscene Statues (no kidding) and Naughty Nannies (still not kidding).
Even the book had a seamy side: It includes tables to determine womens’ measurements. The text makes distinctions between amazons, vixens, houris, and courtesans. I know Amazons, although not personally. I still don’t understand the rest. I guess I’ll never understand women.
My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the material I liked from the city state. I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits. For instance, I still like the idea of launching an adventure based on the story behind the two people the undertaker managed to shrink to 6 inches tall and now keeps in a silver cage. The text calls the two captives Amazons, but I would not keep that detail. I think I know that story, and I don’t want to bring it to my game table.
Despite the product’s challenges, as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas, it scored. As the first role-playing setting, the City State of the Invincible Overlord became a hit. That proved a mixed blessing: In a year, TSR would reverse its stance and demand licensing dollars from Judges Guild.
Next: The candlestick maker