Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Retrospective: City State of the World Emperor

In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, one would regularly read effusive praise for Judges Guild. I think that's completely understandable. If the point of the OSR is the re-evaluation – and appreciation – of older roleplaying games and their products, it stands to reason there would be a lot of discussion of Judges Guild. Judges Guild was, after all, the earliest official licensee of Dungeons & Dragons and, over the course of the company's existence, it published an immense amount of material. Surely, there must be some, if not many, under-appreciated gems among them.

For the most part, I share this perspective. The Caverns of Thracia, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dark Tower, The First Fantasy Campaign, and, of course, City State of the Invincible Overlord are all rightly regarded as classic D&D supplements from the early days of the hobby, as are several others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Judges Guild's output was, in the words of Patrick Amory, "masses of rubbish, poor art, and typos." No glasses are rose colored enough to turn many JG publications into a forgotten tour de force.

Then there are products like 1980's City State of the World Emperor, which occupy a strange middle ground, being neither pure gold nor completely worthless. Consisting of three books, it details the city-state of Viridistan, ruled by Hautulin Scheitt, the last member of "a once haughty and powerful race." Hautulin is also known as the Green Emperor on account of his skin color, evidence of his descent from the mermen of the Trident Gulf. In addition to ruling the city, he is high priest of the evil water god Armadad Bog, who is reputed to actually dwell beneath the emperor's palace within Viridistan. 

Though the Green Emperor has maintained his rule for 150 years, Viridistan is nevertheless rocked with intrigue. The city-state's monarchy is theoretically hereditary, but most of its emperors have been usurpers, having formerly been part of the local aristocracy before seizing the throne. The infighting between the nobility has slowly weakened the city-state and its hold over the surrounding territories. Consequently, it teeters on the brink of rebellion, civil war, or outright collapse – a terrific set-up for adventures or even a whole campaign.

Unfortunately, the bulk of City State of the World Emperor consists of tedious – and, worse, uninteresting – information about bureaucrats, sanitation, tax collection, and endless army barracks. There are descriptions of local businesses, but most of them are inns, taverns, or similar establishments. Now, obviously, inns are important, even vital, parts of many fantasy settings but how many does one need? Certainly not more than fifty and yet that's exactly what City State of the World Emperor offers. The cumulative effect of all the seemingly endless details of the city-state's civil servants, soldiers, and barkeeps is to undermine the high-level situation established earlier.

More useful are encounter and rumor tables, along with information on the local legal system. There's also an extensive treatment of the oppressed Mycretian religion. About 10% of the population of the city-state belong to this faith, which is peace-loving almost to the point of pacifism. Complementing these details is a new character class intended to represent devotees of the faith, complete with unique powers and abilities. I've always been fond of the Mycretians, in part because of how oddly they sit within the larger Wilderlands setting. 

In the end, City State of the World Emperor holds a lot of unfulfilled potential. The general frame of the city-state is a good one, perfect for intrigue-based adventures and campaigns. I absolutely love the notion of the Green Emperor's being the last of his kind, a throwback to the ancient days when gods walked among men. I likewise love the suggestion that the upper echelons of Viridistan's society are wracked with division and sedition. It's incredibly evocative, which is why it's a shame that so much of the product's three books are filled with pointless, dull minutiae – a wasted opportunity. 


  1. Agreed on all points. It's not utter trash, but it's a long way from good even for its era. The insane number of inns that appear in this fool thing unintentionally reflects one of the most common complaints about JG - they always went for quantity over quality.

    But even if everything they made was pure gold I'd never buy another thing from the company while Junior Bledsoe is still breathing. My fading nostalgia for the father's work doesn't begin to overcome my disgust for the son's bigotry.

  2. Being an instinctive contrarian, I find myself wanting to comment that the list of fifty taverns is one of the reasons I have come to love JG stuff. Whereas most companies publish things assuming that the end-user will use their stuff as-is, JG stuff assumes that the end-user will always make changes. Thus, I don’t see the list of fifty taverns as an all-inclusive list of taverns that exist in CSotWE, but rather a smorgasbord of ideas that the end user can choose from. Once one makes this shift in perception, these endless details become opportunities at inspiration rather than a burdensome amount of information that will never be used in-game.

  3. Interestingly, the City State of World Emperor has supplanted the City State of Invincible Overlord as the go to city that players want to adventure. Mostly because of the results of what players have done over the decades.

    The City State of the Invincible Overlord is now ruled in the "present" (4475 BCCC) by a player who is a Myrmidon of Set a Lawful Evil god of War and Order. It is now viewed as an "evil" city my most novices to my setting.

    In contrast Viridistan (CSWE) is viewed as a free wheeling place where anything can happen. For three main reasons.

    The emperor was overthrown decades ago (game and real time) by a player group.

    Then slightly later another player group took over the city and established an oligarchic council that lasted to the present.

    Finally players can play Viridians and Half-Viridians which are viewed by players much in the same way Tieflings are in later editions. Demonic or half demonic races with interesting abilities and the whole miltonian anti-hero vibe going on. In my lore there are two dozen surviving Viridians almost none of them of Imperial Blood, and many half-Viridians as a legacy of centuries of their rule over the empire.

    As for the huge lists, yeah often they don't leap out and make for tedious reading however one aspect of Viridistan is that it is the largest city in the Wilderlands not the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The large lists reinforce this. Scattered amid these seemly boring entries are the seed of many of an intrigue within the city.

    And uniquely the city is mostly unkeyed so you can place as few or as many of the entries as one likes.

    1. That's the difference a long campaign can make. Thanks for sharing that.