Street numbering in Istallia


Dear R––,

I know that at the end of our last Fall of Magic campaign, you told me (paraphrased):

I would like to play this game again, but I don’t know I’ll be able to because I don’t think it’ll ever be as good as that game.

I’m writing this because I want to tell you that - as long as you find a group of folk who’re on the same wavelength as you - you’ll play games as good as that.

There’s a few games that I come back to time after time. Some systems, like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, came along right as I was entering that halcyon time back in University where you could be in three campaigns at once and not even sweat. I played them so much that their systems and mechanics are like second nature to me. I return to them because I want to tell a story, I want to author something for my friends, and my hands have formed calluses around these systems. I know how to turn the rules to do the thing I want, and when and how to ignore them and let them fade to the background.

And then there’s games whose core premise is so gripping, so interesting, so worth revisiting, that I’ll run them again and again, interacting with them in different ways, letting things rhyme, stealing bits from previous games and incorporating them into the next, and just steeping in them. Games like Society of Dreamers, games like Fall of Magic.

I could tell you about all the things our group has explored - about the golems and their weird trance-link mindlinks; about the culture of the Foxes of Mistwood, how they’ve been run out of their home and had to set up subcommunities elsewhere, and their shared religions; about the Barley Lord and his annual immolation; about our awkward teenage love triangles aboard the Sea Wing - but these kind of things, momentous or detailed world-building, tend to lose something on retelling.

Instead, I remember some of the diversions we had in our campaign - the fifteen-minute discussion about the statue in the Market Square - and thought you might like to know a similar thing that came up in our game, about how street numbering works in Istallia.

The great city of Istallia can be divided into three major districts, arranged like a set of concentric circles. The largest is the Outer City, sandwiched between the Old and New Walls, the most populous and diverse of the districts. Inside of this is the Inner City, the old city, reformed and re-reformed through the pet projects of a number of successive rulers, and home of the rich and powerful, as well as the esteemed Starfall Academy. And inside that, the Gilded District, the home of the Gilded One themselves.

Istallia has always grown in layers. New growth occurs on the edges, and as the edges creep out, the old boundaries become roads and alleyways. Over time, ambitious rulers will tear up the houses along these desire paths to widen them, properly pave them, and turn them into roads worthy of the name.

The issue with the ring roads (and they are important enough and numerous enough to earn their own moniker) is that it’s not just their structure that’s ad-hoc. Street numbering along the roads is a topic of discussion, ridicule, and sometimes even pride from residents. As the streets are formed organically and according to demand, the numbering system is usually agreed upon by residents as required - which means the “start” of the street could actually be anywhere along the circumference of the city. In some cases, in the process of paving and widening the ring roads, the authorities will merge several smaller roads, all of which started at different points along the city’s boundary, and renumbering from whichever road is the largest and busiest.

Even when the city is given the chance to renumber its roads, though, the numbering system varies from road to road. Street number 1 on one ring road may be halfway across the city from street number 1 on its outer neighbour, and may even flow the opposite way to the one directly inside of it (that is, one ring may go clockwise, and the other anticlockwise). It’s a common trope for a tourist to spend an afternoon wandering a ring road with a map, trying to find the house of a friend.

For the residents of Istallia, the inconsistent numbering scheme is just something to be lived with. People learn how each ring road works and unconsciously remember where each road “starts”. But as Istallia grew and become more of a destination for tourists over the past century, successive rulers have identified the confusing ring road system as something worthy of reform.

Theron of Istallia was Gilded One - that is, ruler of Istallia, elected by its Council - many decades ago. Of note to us, he completed his full education at Starfall Academy, and this kind of academic rigour, slightly divorced from reality, tinged his decisions as a leader. It was his idea to try to bring some sort of order to the ring road’s haphazard numbering system.

How? Theron issued a city-wide decree that outlined strict rules that the roads would follow. Those roads which did not obey would gradually be brought into line, houses renumbered, some torn down - the argument being that a little disruption now would pay dividends forever more.

The first two sections of the decree were somewhat arbitrary but uncontroversial - first, street number 1 for every ring road would be the easternmost property on the road, and second, every ring road’s street numbers would increase as the road turned anticlockwise from this origin point. This was the kind of analytical thinking Theron inherited from his lecturers at the Academy.

But the third section was unintuitive, divisive, and eventually caused the scheme to be canned. It was brought in to settle another, related, issue that always came up with the ring roads: as you travelled further out from the centre of the city, the ring roads had to cover more and more distance. As this happened, the number of houses on each road increased, and the highest number on the road increased as well. The inner-most ring roads may only have a few hundred houses on them, but by the time you reached the outskirts of the Outer City, roads would have a thousand or more houses on them.

In an attempt to make navigation easier for tourists, Theron decreed that the highest number for any property on a ring road would be 360, this being the house just south of the easternmost house (which is, of course, numbered 1). The numbers would mimic the degrees in a circle, with house number 90 being the northernmost house on the road, 180 being the westernmost, and 270 the southernmost. In this utopian vision, a visitor to the city could visit the Temple of the Fallow Field at 90 Cedar Road (this being the northernmost property on said ring road), walk one block north, and be guaranteed to find themselves at 90 All Angels’ Road, the next road out.

This was no issue for the smaller streets - in fact, many of the innermost ring roads would find themselves skipping house numbers to fit the pattern. The problem was with the larger ring roads that traversed the outer city: to ensure every house got a number, Theron proposed dividing the roads into one-degree “arcs”, assigning each arc a number, and then providing each house within the arc with a fraction such that the arc was evenly divided between its occupants.

For residents of the Inner City, the numbering scheme was not too much of a burden - after all, if a couple of the ring roads in the Inner City had houses labelled “156½” or “13¾”, what of it? But the districts near the edge of the city - notably, those populated by the poor and the newly-arrived - found it absurd and unworkable. These were the suburbs already marginalised by the ring roads, who’d find that their local streets would be renamed and houses torn down for widening when the Council decided it was time to add another layer to the system. Forcing entire neighbourhoods to renumber - and to add convoluted fractions to each building - was a step too far.

Over the first year of the scheme, the roads of the Inner City were reformed. There was some muttering and fuming as houses were renumbered, as everyone had to update their address books, but the inhabitants of the Inner City were golden at heart - that is, loyal supporters of the city Council and its ruling mandate - and kept their indignation mainly to the occasional angry letter to the editor of the local paper. But the inhabitants of the Outer City watched on nervously as the reforms worked their way further and further out.

The first three ring roads in the Outer City were successfully converted to the new numbering system without too much hassle, but demonstrations attended the next three. Things escalated from this point. City bureaucrats, delivering notices of the changes or attempting to remove and replace signage, were mobbed, their ceremonial hats of office stolen from their heads, their papers snatched from their hands and scattered into the mud of the street. Signs were painted over or torn down. In one notable instance a set of three city blocks was barricaded off from the rest of the city, the residents declaring the space an independent city-state, and chaos reigned until the army was called in to sort things out.

After a month of protests and stalled progress, Theron finally called for a change of tack – rather than push the system through, officials would meet with community leaders to discuss and collectively agree on important decisions regarding the project. Theron was clear in his rhetoric - the ring roads would be renumbered, construction would continue - but it was to be a collaborative effort. It’s generally believed that this was the result of pressure from his counsellors, who threatened to depose and replace him if he didn’t make some show of listening to the people.

While these communual meetings were widely considered something of a show, rather than a genuine attempt at consensus-building, they were effective at one thing: slowing the project down. By the time Theron was deposed fifteen months later - a common-enough fate for Guilded Ones in Istallia - three more streets had been partially renumbered, each to varying degrees. None had been completed. His successor, running on a platform of cost cuts and small city government, abandoned the project, not even bothering to try reverting Theron’s changes.

Istallia’s ring roads now follow a strange pattern as you travel out from the city centre. From the Road of All Gods, the innermost ring road in the Inner City, through to the Raven’s Avenue in the Outer City, the roads obey Theron’s requirements. Raven’s Avenue has several buildings with fractions in their addresses, but otherwise the numbers seem very regular. After that, however, things get more complex. The Street of Sails, next out from Raven’s Avenue, has no houses numbered 1 through 90 - the renumbering effort hit riots near the docks, where these houses would have been, and thus this quadrant retains its original numbers (with duplicates indicated by, for example, “272 East Street of Sails”, for a grain warehouse, and “272 West Street of Sails”, for a milliner’s shop in the south of town). The Street of the Blessed Siblings, one ring further out again, has three individual arcs whose numbering follows Theron’s rule, although the remaining two thirds follows the old scheme. And after that, the ring roads do what they will, their inhabitants negotiating, renumbering, and generally doing whatever is practical to continue living their lives.

The project to renumber Istallia’s ring roads was one of many that Theron oversaw as Guilded One, but its impact on the city proper makes it loom large in the memories of Istallians. There are many ways to read this project as a lesson, but many Istallians view it as a demonstration of the hubris of the city’s Council and its inability to solve the actual problems facing the city’s inhabitants. Equally, you could view it as an argument for incremental change over sweeping reforms. But ultimately, historians argue, the main lesson to be learned here is what happens when one person brings a grand but simplistic vision to bear against a complex system, and refuses to adapt their plan to meet the vagaries of reality.