Making Cities Slicker

October 24, 2016 at 7:57 pm

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about
with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”

― Charles Baudelaire


Basic RGBPerhaps not as much as haunted ruins or mysterious towers, but cities have long been a staple of fantastic literature. Lankhmar is as much a character as Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser, and the mental image of the circles of Minas Tirith has stuck with me since i first read them in middle school.

Fantasy cities provide characters with the opportunity to spend their hard-earned gains, seek out wise counsel, or simply stir up trouble. But they can be some of the hardest locations to design and manage for the game master. Everything that makes them enticing — the freedom, the choices, the opportunities and risks — make them difficult for a GM rot handle and players to make the most of.

Unlike dungeons or wilderness areas, most urban areas are too large to be fully detailed (unless you have far more time than I do), and the ‘goals’ may be harder stay on top of. Further, urban areas make it far easier for player groups to separate and force the GM to juggle multiple stories at once.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]Another mechanical concern is that cities are far more likely to have inhabitants of widely varying power levels. A wily character might try to pad his pockets by cutting purses in a crowded market, but may quickly end up on the wrong side of the local Duke or visiting archmage. Depending on the player, thus might encourage or paralyze them. The same amount of choice that frustrates the planning of the game master might overwhelm the players, who might choose to sit tight in a tavern, and wait for a mysterious stranger to drop a quest in their laps.


Group itinerary

Like any adventure location, you should have an overall goal of what can be accomplished in the city. This can vary widely by group, and gauging their interest in various elements of the game is critical. If they are heavy on role-pay and politics, simply gaining admission to court and plotting with the various factions might be the goal. Or, if they are mission-focused they may simply want to report to their superiors, get rest and equipment, and be off. They may just be here to perform a task like stealing a family heirloom or return the lost princess. Knowing your group’s interest and setting a concise goal can be very helpful in creating a successful urban adventure.


Map quest

So what can we do to design cities that inspire adventure and intrigue players without killing ourselves with preparation? Start with a map. Not a diagram of street and buildings (although those can be pretty helpful), but a story map of what you think might happen, with which characters, and what resolutions might come out of it. Cities are filled with choices, but some choices are predictable. Does the party need to replace our upgrade their equipment? Will the wizard want to visit a library or sage to help decipher the runes carved on the staff pulled from the ghoul-queen’s tomb? Does one character need to slip off to repay a loan that got from an underworld boss?

GMs have their own goals as well. Perhaps you want to introduce a secret cult as new villain. Or tell them of rumors of a new ghoul outbreak in the northern fens. Perhaps the ghoul queen isn’t as vanquished as they thought? Creating a chart of these elements can keep you on track when things bog down, and may reveal ways to combine locations in interesting ways.  Perhaps the warrior cannot get the plate armor she was hoping for because the last shipment steel disappeared somewhere in the northern fens?

Build on possible resolutions, and link story blocks together not unlike a dungeon encounter. They might take different hallways, and react differently to encounters, but have it work toward some kind of conclusion. Unlike a dungeon crawl, there can be a lot more unresolved plot points and (hopefully) a lot fewer corpses left behind. Store these away and pick them back up when our heroes return.

Unless you are running a completely urban, highly social campaign (a very specific animal), the players are undoubtedly going to leave the urban area and he’d back out to the dangerous wilderness. Try to make it as eventful and intriguing visit as you can. Allow them the freedom to off after their own goals or turn down dark alleys, but keep the story map in mind and lead them out the other side.


Season, sparingly

Fantasy cities can be as unique and fanciful as the rest of your world, embrace that. Buildings can carved out of the trunk of a great tree, or mantis-shaped automatons may patrol the marketplace. Give your cities individual flavor, but be careful of overdoing it. Many players have been ‘trained’ by dungeon-crawling to pay special attention to details you call out, and assume they are critical to their success. If you mention highly-guarded teleportation circles that the nobility use to travel between courtly functions, they might decide they need to sneak in and use them themselves. And find themselves on the wrong side of the Kingsmens’ halberds.

This can be pretty subjective, and it is difficult to guess which details your player’s will fixate on. Just be aware of the dangers implicit in your descriptions of urban wonder. The same is true for NPCs. Cities are great places to encourage role-playing, and the temptation is to give every bartender and dry good merchant their own voice, back-story, and motivations.

But if you have already split the group into smaller groups, this will extend the time between each and may frustrate those who are not part of the scene. It may also lead them into thinking one NPC is more important than you imagined them to be.  This can be problematic if some random-seeming NPCs are critical to your goals. If one merchant is named ‘Bob’ and his prices are straight from the book, and his competitor is Ichriss the Irrefutable, a seven-foot man who only opens after sunset and haggles over everything, the might get the idea which one is hiding a secret.


Exit strategy

Its pretty easy to tell when the dungeon adventure is over — the map is filled in and the BBEG is bleeding out over his dark altar. This is often not the case in an urban setting. The group might finish its required tasks, gain the information they sought, and healed their wounds, and yet will still linger in town. It is the nature of the open-ended cityscape. With so many choices, its impossible to tell when they are done.

When this occurs, you might need take action and encourage them to get back on the bus. That might be literally, in the case of a merchant caravan leaving for the fens at first light. Or, a representative from the thieves’ guild suggesting that if they are going stay, membership dues might need to be paid. Or that mysterious stranger might even dump a quest in their laps.

The key to a successful visit is making sure you don’t overstay your welcome.

Do you have any secret weapons you use to make your urban adventures memorable? Or do just want to tell us where we went wrong. We’re ready to hear you out in the comments below: