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Basic Guidelines for Running City-Based Adventures/Campaigns

One of the side points in this blog post by Paul Siegel was that adventuring in a city environment tends to make it difficult to let the players engage in exploration. I weighed in on the comments with some of my lessons learned from the few city-based games I’ve run, and I seemed to hit on ideas that Paul found interesting to think about. In the interest of limiting how much I’m inundating him with comments there (at least on that topic, seeing as I quad-posted on another topic in a mess of mistaken keystrokes and self-corrections earlier today), I figured there’d be merit in gathering my thoughts into a full post of my own.

To give credit where credit’s due, here are links to discussions I’ve read about urban adventuring from a couple of GMs who likely have more authority on the matter:

The first thing to consider is the scope of the adventure/campaign and how much of it will actually be based in the city. Going forward, let’s assume a campaign of indeterminant length which should take place primarily in the city. That should put it in line with the platonic ideals for a megadungeoncrawl or a dedicated wilderness hexcrawl.

To make further assumptions in the name of erring towards fruitful discussion over general vagueness, let’s assume a major city (say, something in the area of 20,000 population) modeled as a scaled-up version of Restenford from L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (since Paul is also a fan of this classic module).

My first step in preparing for a city campaign is coming up with its major areas. In my comments on Paul’s blog, I’d been calling them “neighborhoods” (probably remembered from Zak’s post), but that’s both an awful lot of letters to type each time and something with a smaller-scale connotation than I’d like, so I’m going to call them “districts” here. The purpose of the districts is to give a high-level definition to the city which can provide context for developing further details. I’d consider them analogous to levels in a megadungeon or major, multi-hex regions in a hexcrawl.

The list of districts should be something that you can keep in your mind easily, so I’d observe Delta’s Rule of 7+/-2 to guide how many to use. For our Restenford example, I might break the city up as:

  • Baron’s Estate

  • Abbey Hill

  • Verdant Retreat (or more simply Almax’s Home)

  • Riverwalk (or more simply The Docks)

  • Trades Way (or more simply Commerce District)

  • The Midlands (or more simply Residences)

(That this allows for a d6 roll to locate some improvised element randomly is a nice coincidence.)

Then, I’d start with a brief description of what defines each district. Some embellishing here is fine insofar as it can work as a launching point for inspiring ideas of what’s in there, but these should still be short and vague at this point. Remember, the city is meant as a backdrop for the players’ adventures, not as a lonely exercise in world-building. Thus, the real details of what’s in there should be left until we’ve got some ideas for adventures.

  • Baron’s Estate: An imposing keep atop a hill, looming over the city and acting as a stronghold to protect the northward roads.

  • Abbey Hill: The main center of worship in the city, with an abbey dedicated to Phaulkon. The clergy’s rectory made of fortified stone is thought to be impenetrable.

  • Verdant Retreat: This lush forest on the east side of the city is guarded by a powerful warden of the old gods.

  • Riverwalk: The major thoroughfare for ship travel, this district cuts across the whole girth of the city and includes docks, warehouses, and a tavern popular with sailors and smugglers alike.

  • Trades Way: Respectable tradesmen and entrepreneurs run their businesses in this area, whether those be services for residents or travelers.

  • The Midlands: This region provides housing for those who can afford to avoid the ever-present musk of the Riverwalk.

At this point, I think it’s worth pausing on further detailing to give some thought to the adventures that will exist at the campaign’s start, similar to what would be done to place major adventure sites in a hexcrawl (there isn’t usually a good analog to this for megadungeon campaigns, in my experience, since coming up with broad-strokes definitions for the dungeon levels tends to characterize the obvious adventure possibilities already). Doing this with premade content can be a little trickier for a city campaign than for a hexcrawl since there’s a general dearth of good urban adventure modules, so just work with what you can.

For Restenford, I could see setting up Death Love Doom more or less as written (locating the mansion either in The Midlands or possibly in place of a farmer’s cottage in Verdant Retreat), setting up The God That Crawls in the undercroft below Abbey Hill, incorporating a number of the adventures from the In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer collection (namely Swindled at the Laughing Harpy, The Cult of the Flickering Sign, Another Man’s Treasure, and/or Icon of the Blood Goddess), or perhaps adjusting the set-up of L2: The Assassin’s Knot (a module with some good ideas presented in such an awful manner that it’s almost impossible to run as written) to work in a single large city instead of two smaller villages. You could also certainly steal elements from something like N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God (which has some initial village play before transitioning to a dungeon), of course.

For the sake of the ongoing example, so let’s suppose I plan to start with Death Love Doom, The God That Crawls, and Icon of the Blood Goddess, and I want some flexibility to include L2 if the party moves up enough socially to be involved in trying to solve the baron’s murder. This is a good time to give a thought to what I should have in the city to support those (note: I’m ignoring issues of merging disparate world-building flavors since that’s almost an automatic part of using modules in any campaign):

  • Death Love Doom: the estate and some presence of a major importing business

  • The God That Crawls: some way to keep the undercroft secret

  • Icon of the Blood Goddess: a cult to the Blood Goddess, centered in Riverwalk but maybe extending into other districts

  • L2: an assassin’s guild and equivalents for the red herring suspects

Incidentally, looking over that list (and considering the rumors written up in Death Love Doom), it seems like all of these can work well with a party that’s working out of the seedy tavern in Riverwalk, so that’s the district where I’ll plan to begin the campaign. Also, since L2 requires the players to get involved in finding the baron’s killer, I can expand the Baron’s Estate into a Noble Quarter which includes a few mansions, one of which will be the estate from Death Love Doom. The description above can be updated to “A large hill dotted with the mansions of Restenford’s wealthiest families, dominated by the baron’s imposing keep.”

Now, I need to come up with a few points of interest for each district. There aren’t any strict upper bounds on this, but I’d err on the low side here in order to allow more space for growth in play, so 4 per district is a fair maximum. While I believe a hexcrawl should key content to each hex from the start (even if a lot of it is just landmarks), approaching a city campaign in the way that I do is about putting the creative onus on the players, with the GM serving as a guiding hand to maintain tone, atmosphere, plausibility, etc. Also, these locations are going to be shared with the players, so take care not to have anything that sticks out too blatantly as being interesting/important just because it’s an adventure location (e.g. I would not include the Death Love Doom estate in the Noble Quarter’s points of interest unless perhaps I wanted its owner to start out as a patron of the players before what happens to start that module).

  • Noble Quarter: the baron’s keep

  • Abbey Hill: abbey, rectory, cemetery (added to allow for funerary rites that won’t interfere with the secret undercroft)

  • Verdant Retreat: Fountain of Good Health, baron’s private hunting grounds (added on a whim)

  • Riverwalk: Falco’s tavern, lighthouse, fisherman’s boatyard, mill

  • Trades Way: Inn of the Dying Minotaur, Tavern of the West Wind, manor of the sorcerer Pelltar

  • The Midlands: red light district, musician’s theater (both added to give this district possible sources of conflicts, since L1 is full of mostly-unremarkable houses here)

(If I was trying to set this campaign up for real, I'd give actual names to all of those places and probably sprinkle in a couple more, but I think this is enough to serve for illustrative purposes)

At this point, things are actually quite close to being done and yet far from complete at the same time

For player-facing information, all that’s really left is to come up with travel times to go between districts. Obviously, some districts will not connect directly (e.g. going to Abbey Hill from either Noble Quarter or Verdant Retreat requires crossing both Riverwalk and either The Midlands or Trades Way, respectively). The travel times can be based on any combination of factors (physical size, topography, presence or absence of road planning during construction, etc.), but it’s always advised to make it in units that play nicely with whatever rules your system of choice uses for long distance travel. Package that listing up with the earlier district descriptions and a rough map showing the districts and listing the points of interest in each, and the players should have everything that they need to get started on one page or less.

On the GM’s side of things, there’s a bit more, though it’s mostly the same as what you’d do at the start of a wilderness hexcrawl or megadungeon.

The main thing is having random encounter tables for each district. The ideal size and/or intricacy depends on how much variety you want and what you can manage to actually use in play, but as a starting point, I’d probably have a seven-entry table for each district rolled with 2d4. That way, I can locate the most common encounters (i.e. the types of people who make up most of that district’s population) as the #4-6 entries (62.5% total probability of occurring), something somewhat uncommon such as visitors from far districts as the #3 and #7 entries (25% total probability), and rarer encounters such as visitors from other settlements as the #2 and #8 entries (12.5% total probability). You can include some details to flesh out the encounter, but depending on how often you’re doing the rolls, it might be better to do a secondary check on something like Zak’s Who Are You And Why Are You In My Way Table to give some context. You also need to decide on a scheme for when to check for these encounters; as a starting point, checking once when moving between districts and 1-in-6 when going between locations in the same district usually feels like a decent chance of having something unexpected happen without making it a constant impediment to the players’ attempts to accomplish something specific. Lastly on this point, having separate lists for certain times (day, night, holiday, etc.) can help add both flavor and verisimilitude, though just have a care since there’s no bottom to that rabbit hole.

Secondly, the players need ways of getting hooked into the adventures. Fortunately, this is simple enough in this example case: take any rumors related to Restenford from L1’s introduction, add some rumors from Death Love Doom, and then come up with some rumors for each of The God That Crawls and Icon of the Blood Goddess. Since I decided earlier that the party will be at Falco’s tavern at the start of the campaign, a little of the typical boozing and schmoozing should give them something to start with. If I didn’t have that working for me (suppose I’m trying to come up with something completely from scratch, for instance), I’d probably approach it as a 5-node mystery without an “E” node. In other words, I’d have to think of a starting point (node A) that would give a hook or two to the starts of each of a few adventures (nodes B, C, and D), but where things proceed from there is directed by the players.

That should cover most of what I’d want to get started, really. Beyond that point, it’s mostly a matter of taking notes on what the players do and inventing reasonable consequences/complications to keep them engaged. As the players try to find out more details about the city, improvise whatever’s needed to keep play moving and record any developments as new details. This stage of things isn’t too different from a hexcrawl, in my experience, except that it tends to be the players creating new lairs and locations rather than your encounter rolls (though, by all means, add a secret den of Blood Goddess worshippers to the Verdant Retreat if you just rolled up three straight random encounters there with cultists from Riverwalk). If you start to get 10+ locations in a district, it might be time to break it up into subdistricts for organizational purposes, but I’d keep that distinction purely on the GM’s side if possible (unless the players have gotten powerful enough to literally reshape the city, of course, but that’s a whole different matter).


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