In Praise of Legwork

A question: you ever try to run a campaign with a city in it? Not just a town or settlement or fort, but a proper city, one with an actual street map and whole neighborhoods and thousands of people living within the walls? I certainly have, many times. It’s hard! It’s really hard.

I live in New York—one of the biggest cities in the world—and the complexity of the streets and the depth of the city itself is just staggering. Every time I think I understand a neighborhood, or even a couple streets, I find new nooks and crannies tucked away. I often wonder, when my players reach a city, how I can best replicate that feeling. How can I create that particular impression of unfolding layers of people and places, where there’s always something new to discover just around the corner?

The answer, I think, lies in City State of the Invincible Overlord, the 70s-era Judges Guild city module. It depends a little which version you read, but more or less all City States share a common feature: huge lists of NPCs, in their hundreds and thousands. Crack open the PDF, and seemingly-endless quantities of people leap out at you, all sorted by their main locations—shops, apartments, temples, and so on—which in turn get sorted by the street and neighborhood.

On some level, City State overwhelms. Its ancient graphic design and information ordering certainly doesn’t help. But at the same time, once I started digging into the book, I found myself getting acclimated. There’s a learning curve to the text, but once I started climbing the curve, I realized the huge breadth of information and content available. Here’s an example, from By-Water Road (“PROB 60% Run Off Road by Horse Racing Pages”):

Three example locations from the 1977 Revised version of City StateThree example locations from the 1977 Revised version of City State

The horizontal line of numbers is the stat block: class, alignment, level, hitpoints, armor class, save level, strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, charisma, and weapon. Rhino Rudigore, the innkeeper of the Blue Dolphin Inn, is a neutral level 2 fighter—not particularly powerful in combat but quite physically fit.

Below his statblock, the book details the bartender, Koris Brightips, also with her compressed statblock (which you’ll notice, uncomfortably, includes an extra keyword at the start: FEM) and the note that she sings.” From there, it mentions the Blue Dolphin’s customers—freemen, sailors, and nobles (with stat blocks)—the contents and dangers of his chest, the prices of the food sold (snakes fried in bear fat!), and gambling rates. I admit I’m not quite sure what Legend of the Flying Citadel: Storm Giants Castle in Harridan Gap” is; I’d wager it’s a reference to another Judges Guild module.

Rhino, Koris, and the Blue Dolphin form just one entry of literal hundreds that the book includes. All this info is, of course, very geared for the particular sort of slash-and-burn 70s adventuring style, but even sans stat blocks, these entries contain loads of exciting information. Just look at the next two entries: Jolly Naben, the (chaotic evil) smith that works behind the Dolphin, is close to broke and thus probably happy to sell you his unicorn,” but also possesses valuable information about the Dwarven Mines; Squeaky Werter, the local racketeer, is the Thane of a Senator and thus mostly immune to prosecution, and so accordingly is loaded to the gills. The text could use a sharp editor’s pass, of course, but this is good stuff, ripe for adventure, all contained in just a few lines. Across an entire city’s worth, the book brings enough content to run a dozen campaigns, each unlike the other.

Which brings me to my original point: City State of the Invincible Overlord is, as far as I’ve ever seen, the closest thing to a city module that’s actually ready to run. GMs need to get through a lot of reading, obviously, and the book is more than a little painful to our modern eyes, but it does present a whole city. Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen, the two writers, really did just take the time and effort to detail more or less every street there was. I’m sure it took a breathtaking amount of time and effort on their part, and for all its flaws, I’ve never seen anything quite as large or as detailed as City State.

This is what I call legwork: the long, slow, detailed, sometimes painful process of going through to figure out and then write down all the important details of everything that’s supposed to exist in the imaginary world of the game.

Consider a starker example, using John Harper’s Blades in the Dark (of which I’ve played dozens and dozens of sessions over the years). In the original Blades, Harper included a map of Doskvol, the city in which Blades is set; here’s a lightly-interactive digital version of Harper’s map. It describes about a dozen districts, each of which includes a few key locations and the basic outline of the major streets.

A few years after the release of Blades, Tim Denee released his Detailed Doskvol Street Maps” with Harper’s blessing. Denee’s maps are huge: they include detailed maps of the streets, almost all of which Denee named, along with the canals, bridges, and rooftop crossings of each of the (also now named) neighborhoods within each larger district. A tremendous amount of effort went into these maps, but the difference at the table proves immediately noticeable. The ability to say Oh yeah, our gang runs Fishmarket, with our headquarters located on the roof of Pike Court between Sharktooth Alley and Roe Lane” and have those be real places on the map feels immensely cool and exciting. (In my old campaign, players would war with other gangs and redraw turf lines according to the canals and streets—“Who gets tolls on the Moon Bridge?” was a hotly-disputed question.)

You can, of course, just name the streets and neighborhoods in Blades yourself, without these detailed maps. The option always remains there. But that takes time and effort, the kind of time and effort that I as a GM maybe can’t or won’t spend—the legwork. I was more than happy to spend the $10 that Denee charges just to avoid doing all that legwork myself.

Legwork is hard. It’s basically all the boring or fiddly or tiring parts of writing up an imaginary place. It’s pretty fun and breezy to say Ooh, what if there was a city that was, like, on an island in a lake full of blood, and the blood came from the monster under the city, and the sewers, like, turned into its veins?” It’s even pretty straightforward to start coming up with names of important places and people in that city—the Fanged Gate, the Sanguine King, the Crimson Keepers—but sooner or later the going gets hard. Sewers that turn into veins is an exciting idea, but… what’s the map of those sewers look like? Which streets have manhole covers, and which buildings’ basements include access? For that matter, what exactly do the streets look like? And when the Crimson Keepers carve off chunks of the regenerating beast below, where do they store it, and how much do they carve per day? Once the text hits the table, cool concepts demand legwork, and legwork is a lot harder than dreaming up mere ideas.

In many cases, GMs who (quite reasonably) don’t want to do all this legwork just decide to wing it. I employed this strategy for a long time when it came to cities—draw a simple overview map, write down a dozen possible street names, then just slot them into place as needed when they came up during the session. This works basically fine, it’s enough to run a session or two (particularly if the players don’t spend long in the city), but it starts to fall apart when players start needing persistent details. And winging it really doesn’t work for dungeons, which, as more zoomed-in locations, demand a higher level of detail on a room-by-room basis. Unless you’re an expert improviser, sooner or later you’ll find yourself wanting the details that only legwork provides.

I come now to my sharper point: legwork is so hard that sometimes it feels like RPG writers and designers aren’t willing to do it at all.

A short list of some things that don’t take much legwork to make: rules; lore; character options; generators; inspirational” material; and faction descriptions. By contrast, a short list of things that do take quite a lot of legwork: hexcrawls; dungeons; cities; and all the NPCs that actually go in a faction. There’s obviously some gray area between these—monsters, items, spells, and so on—but take a quick glance through DriveThru or itch or Kickstarter and tell me which you see more of. Is it the stuff that takes a lot of legwork to write, or only a little?

Once I saw this pattern, this avoidance of doing the legwork, I started noticing it everywhere. In OSR-land, depthcrawls and other generators provide shortcuts to making huge spaces (megadungeons, labyrinths, etc) without needing to do all the legwork in between. In storygame-land, the onetime rallying cries of don’t write a story” and play to find out” have become code for just make the players (or GM) come up with everything themselves.” In trad-land, established companies and studios churn out books full of extraneous systems and new character-building options instead of adventures. All of these, one way or another, allow writers to skip doing the legwork.

I talked about all this a little with some friends, and they brought up an important question: is this actually an issue? What’s the problem with having lots of other non-legwork stuff on hand and just winging it? Is legwork actually all that useful?

The short answer to this question—and many others—is that a writer can afford to take the time and effort to come up with better content than somebody improvising it live at the table.

This isn’t true in every single case all the time (there are many great improvisers and even more bad writers), but in general, particularly when it comes to adventures, writers have the ability to work at a breadth and depth that GMs who wing it simply can’t. Yes, GMs can tweak things to enhance them for their specific table in a way that writers never can, but a GM can’t improvise a whole dungeon, let alone an entire campaign. When the imaginary world of the game brings a real breadth and depth, when there truly is something over the next hill and the hill after that and the hill after that, new dimensions of play emerge. Many campaigns and books claim to be a sandbox, but unless the world proves rich and detailed across the board, can players truly explore and do what they like?

Legwork proves its value to games even in cases that may appear less than obvious. Take, for example, solo games—a genre and form arguably about players doing the legwork. One of the most enduring and popular solo RPG books, Tim Hutchings’s Thousand Year Old Vampire, stands apart from many others in that it includes hundreds of prompts. And not just a random list of prompts, or prompts on any topic Hutchings could think of, but carefully-crafted prompts that nest and loop and feed into each other. The rules themselves of 1kYOV are simple enough; the juice, the reason that I and many others keep coming back to it, lies in its prompts—the legwork. If Hutchings hadn’t taken the time to write a couple hundred pretty good prompts, sure, we’d have a cool pitch and some neat vibes, but actually playing the game would be far more difficult and far less engaging.

Here lies the key message, the axiom I want to impart: the more legwork the writer provides, the less GMs and players need to do themselves.

It’s for this reason that I largely stopped buying RPG books that aren’t adventures. I can come up systems and vibes and inspiration myself, that stuff’s all exciting, but what I don’t like coming up with is legwork. In fact, I’m very happy to modify and adjust my own systems, or even my own campaigns, to accommodate a bunch of good legwork from another designer—like Denee’s maps. My Doskvol looked a bit different before, but suddenly acquiring an entire of Doskvol vastly more complete than my own made for an excellent reason to change those previously-established details.

My recurring example here, the city, proves only one case. Many recurring popular daydreams really can only be solved through lots of long, slow, fairly draining writing.

Ever wondered about a campaign of rusty space truckers who constantly need to swap and repair parts of their ship? You can of course just improvise it, or abstract it, but to really run that space trucker campaign, you need lists of hundreds or thousands of parts that interlock with each other—legwork.

Ever mused on a system of magic with different magical languages and mysterious components and complex rituals? You can do it on the fly and use a bunch of system math to simulate, but to really make that magic work you just need hundreds of texts, components, materials, and ritual processes—legwork.

Ever daydreamed about a real, proper heist, with guards and disguises and alarms and everything? You can retrofit and improvise it (like Blades does), but to really run a heist, you need guard patrol routes and workers’ weaknesses and camera locations and power lines and a million other tiny fiddly details—legwork.

The answer to my original question—how do you make a city feel like a city?—seems to have only one real answer: make a city, a big one, that’s broad and deep and includes all the pieces. There is, as far as I can tell, no other substitute.

Historically, we designers typically use clever math, rules, and out-of-character solutions to run these kinds of games. These work, sure, but they aren’t the real thing. To truly get down in the weeds of an imaginary world and still have it maintain consistency and excitement, you need a ton of legwork in the background to support your moment-to-moment play. You need the ironclad backing of a great deal of content, ready to hit the table without further preparation or improvisation. To play in a fantasy city, we needed City State of the Invincible Overlord; to play other dreams, we need more legwork.

June 19, 2024