Tag Archives: City State of the Invincible Overlord

A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord

In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any Dungeons & Dragons 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 housed by the temple made the place unsuitable for a dungeon crawl.

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.”

A quarter of the city map

A quarter of the city map

City State of the Invincible OverlordBledsaw 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.

A baker

A baker

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.

Have you found god?

Have you found god?

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 through H, but never found them. Did I need them?

Bledsaw’s grandson, Bob Bledsaw III, explains the missing letters. “Initial Guidelines Booklet I was supposed to be I as in a roman numeral one. However, when it came time for the second Guidelines Booklet to come out, my grandfather told the typist to continue the series from before.” The typist followed I with J rather than II. “For the sake of consistency, they continued to use letters, much to my grandfather’s chagrin. So that’s why there are books I, J, K, L, M, etc.”

Nowadays, urban adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location 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 original D&D 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 Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter 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.

A butcher

A butcher

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. 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 do not want to invite analogies between 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).

I'm not kidding

I’m 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 don’t understand the categories—I guess I’ll never understand women.

Still not kidding

Still not kidding

My 1977 copy of the City Sstate still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the bits that captured my imagination while I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits.

Despite the product’s challenges, it scored as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas. 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.

The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included 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.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord

In my last look back at Judges Guild’s 1977 City State of the Invincible Overlord, I avoided mentioning the product’s oddest quirk: Every non-player character has an adventuring class and almost anyone worthy of a name has 4 or more levels, mid-level for the era. Did everyone in the city begin as an adventurer, and only later settle down to become a candlestick maker?

In some cases, yes.

In some cases, yes.

All the fighting men and magic users seem weird now, but in 1977, they revealed potential answers to two questions no one asks anymore.

In the 70s, a player at my table asked, “Since townsfolk should be weak, what stops us from looting the town rather than the dungeon? They could never hit our magic armor. A bunch of shopkeepers and even the town’s militia would rout against a few fireballs?”

As a dungeon master the time, I would not dream of limiting a characters freedom by telling them they could not do something. The game allowed characters to attempt anything. By the ethos of the day, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. (For more, see “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”)

So I wondered what I would do if the players upended the game by targeting the townsfolk. The player characters’ combat abilities overwhelmed the 0-level citizens and their 1d4 hit points—a single blow from a house cat would slay many of them. I could launch human wave attacks on the players, but I had no stomach for such imaginary slaughter, and the PCs would still win. I would need to summon high-level do-gooders from afar to pit against the players, now in the role of super villains. The game would degenerate into a total-party kill or a succession of escalating face offs.

Thankfully, my players honored the game’s social contract and stuck to the dungeon. Still, the question and my lack of an answer unnerved me.

As D&D adventures expanded beyond the dungeon, DMs everywhere faced the problem of how to counter players who saw towns as easier targets than dungeons.

In his Alexandrian blog, Justin Alexander observed that Gary Gygax seems to have designed early village settings in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and T1 The Village of Hommlet to punish players who target citizens. “The underlying assumption here (and in a lot of early city modules) seems to be that some significant percentage of PCs are going to be murder hobos: B2 deals with that by specifying centralized legal repercussions. T1 assumes that the PCs will succeed in looting a house or two (and therefore specifies the loot), but also lays out a comprehensive social network that’s going to come looking for their blood.”

The City State of the Invincible Overlord reached players in 1977, years before T1 or B2. Authors Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen faced more potential for murderous looting than Gary. Most players who sit to play an adventure will follow the plot threads, but the City State offers a sandbox, which gives players free reign. Why bother leaving town for gold and the experience points that it brings?

While the city doesn’t encourage adventurers going from store to store, murdering the proprietors for their cashboxes, it allows for it. Every location includes an account of coins and other treasure, usually hidden, often trapped. The treasure stashes in town match the loot available from the dungeon.

So what stops players from treating the city as a sprawling gold and experience farm?

First, the City State features an even more robust legal system than the Keep on the Borderlands. The initial guidelines devote with two pages to crime, trial, and punishment. With enough bribes, a murderer might escape execution, but the price in treasure offsets any gains. Even an ordinary foot patrol consists of 2-24 level-3 guards and the Overlord can call knights and wizards to challenge greater dangers.

orcus in box

In case of loan default, open box.

Second, some citizens posed greater threats than they appeared. As I mentioned in my last post, any shopkeeper could be a polymorphed Ogre Mage or Dragon. Worse, a loan shark might have a way to counter thieves and scofflaws with Orcus the Demon Prince.

I think I’ll try Lending Tree.Last, the NPCs create a balance of power. In the City State, every inhabitant gets combat stats, and the local baker could be a badass—actually he probably is. For example, the silver smith is a level-6 fighter aided by the (fighter 4) tinsmith next door. Even the lowly (fighter 5) tanner pays a troll to guard the cashbox.

Although the City State’s population seems dangerous, in the Judges Guild world, it ranks as a lower-level city. Its follow up, City State of the World Emperor, warns that its NPCs tend to be a level or two higher.

In games today, player characters have reasons to behave that do not stem from the threat of a weaver kicking their ass. Most campaigns require players to adopt non-evil alignments. The D&D Adventurers League typically requires non-evil characters. The campaign allows PCs in the Zhentarim faction to be lawful evil, but warns, “Just because a player has a character with a darker side doesn’t mean that player has a license to make the game less fun for others at the table.” More, D&D’s social contract has shifted away from allowing players free reign as long as they act in character. Today’s players respect their DM’s preparation by following the threads of the adventure, and avoid actions that ruin other players’ fun. For example, the Adventures League guide says, “If a DM or another player feels as though a player is creating an uncomfortable situation through the excuse of ‘it’s what my character would do,’ the DM is free to give the offending player a warning for disruptive behavior.” I will flatter myself by imagining the authors cribbed my post, “A role-playing game player’s obligation.”

All those fighters and mages in the City State reveal a possible answer to another question no one asks anymore. In a D&D world, what character class do ordinary people belong to?

In the era of the City State’s 1976 development, D&D products had only showed characters in a dungeon or on a battlefield, so everyone fit the game’s character classes. This led players to ask what classes unseen townsfolk fit in. People toyed with a few possibilities:

Stuck at level 0. Even with experience, ordinary folk never rise to distinguish themselves. Gary Gygax adopted this approach for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and it carries to fifth edition. D&D casts player characters as special—extraordinary individuals capable of gaining levels and rivaling heroes of legend.

Advantage: Players feel heroic and powerful. Because few rival their potential, they take center stage in the game world.

Disadvantage: Power corrupts. Players feel tempted to behave without a realistic sense of the consequences their actions.

A level-20 tailor creates the world’s finest trousers. Everyone has a class that advances as their skills improve. These non-adventuring classes gain experience differently than adventurers. Dave Arneson experimented with this approach when he created the Sage class, adulterated in the Blackmoor supplement. Such specialized classes peaked with third edition’s Expert and other NPC classes.

Advantage: Both NPCs and PCs in the game world operate according to the same rules, creating a mechanical consistency. I’m a level-3 blogger and a level-2 dungeon master. If I collected g.p. for this, perhaps I would gain XP faster.

Disadvantage: Character classes weigh NPCs with rules, calculations, and bookkeeping that rarely makes the game more fun.

Curiosity: In third edition, a high-level, expert tailor gained hit points and became harder to kill, suggesting that some hit points come from plot armor.

If you only have Fighting Men, everyone looks like a fighting man. Ordinary folk take the same few classes as shown in the game’s little brown books. The authors of the City State adopted this approach.

Advantage: Everyone poses a potential challenge to PCs, forcing them to behave with a realistic caution. This prudence reflects the reality that even the most dangerous warrior can be overwhelmed by a mob or slain by an arrow in the back.

Disadvantage: Making everyone a match for PCs seems implausible. If player characters must complete long and dangerous adventures to become mid-level fighters and magic users, then how did everyone in town gain similar levels? A city full of such dangerous dyers and wheelwrights defies the game’s logic.

Also, powerful NPCs can diminish the role of the player characters. If everyone has power comparable to the player characters, then what makes the PCs the heroes of the game world? The potter and the carter can just grab a few buddies and slay the dragon themselves.

Some of the joy of role playing comes from the chance to feel powerful, to seize the spotlight. People play D&D to act without the compromise and frustration of the real world. Making everyone an adventurer makes the PCs common.

In the era of the City State, players could feel common without diminishing play. PCs did not need to be central to the game’s story, because any story was purely accidental. Players chased gold and the experience it brought, end of story. Then, powerful NPCs either served as bystanders or obstacles.

As D&D became less about chasing treasure and more about thwarting evil, NPCs changed from potential sources of loot into folk to protect from the closing darkness.

A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord

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.”

A quarter of the city map

A quarter of the city map

City State of the Invincible OverlordBledsaw 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.

A baker

A baker

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.

Have you found god?

Have you found god?

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.

A butcher

A butcher

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).

I'm not kidding

I’m 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.

Still not kidding

Still not kidding

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