|The Free City of Greyhawk|
Artist credit: Valerie Valusek
I've spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about adventuring in cities. Part of it's because I really miss going outside and having an active life in an urban area. Part of it's because my D&D group spent the better part of 2020 in a campaign arc involving our party trapped in a hostile city, Escape From New York-style. And even when we broke from that for a few one-offs here and there, many of those involved adventure in the city. Or at least, like, in a town or neighborhood. And I've noticed what's worked and what hasn't and I've done so much darn reading and I want to get this right once and for all. I've run games in this setting with different approaches and sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not. And I've tried to give feedback to my own DMs about how they might want to improve those sessions, and sometimes they take that advice and sometimes they don't. But the worst thing of all is that each of the really solid sessions my group has spent playing in an urban setting have largely relied on the strength of completely unrelated elements, like a fun combat encounter, social encounter, puzzle, or whatever. They always just skirted around the problems of answering those vital questions about city adventures, so even if the session was successful it was at least partially just luck.
Here's a brief table of contents for this post:
- Bibliography for research I did, and further reading you may enjoy
- An analysis of how most people seem to run urban settings
- An explanation of my line of thinking that led to my version
- My Brave settlement guidelines and examples, with a bit of elaboration on certain parts
- Why I care so much about this
If you just want the goodies, you can skip down to the 4th part.
So first, I'm going to list below some of the preliminary reading and research I did. This is partly because it may interest you and partly because I don't want people recommending me stuff I've already read. Or if they are recommending me something new, they might read this list and realize "oh, wait, the thing I'm recommending won't actually add much to what this guy already knows." And you might also be interested in these things. A lot of ideas in here I ended up not agreeing with, but you might.
- Vornheim (obviously), the beloved LotFP supplement by the infamous Zak S
- Electric Bastionland, the beloved "Vornheim replacement" by the equally-beloved Chris McDowall
- Magical Industrial Revolution, by Skerples
- Demon City, the modern urban horror game by Zak S
- I backed the Kickstarter literally years ago and got the unformatted draft PDF. There was some pretty good stuff but overall it's not great and it ended up telling me basically nothing that would be useful to this project.
- Contained within this is an account of many, many other gaming resources that you could also consider to be part of what informed my thinking here, even if I only read about them second-hand
The adventure is in the wilderness, not the town — As per the discussion of NPCs above, be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration. You can have as many NPCs as you want in town, but remember it’s not about them. Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there. “Town game” was a dirty word in West Marches. Town is not a source of info. You find things by exploring, not sitting in town — someone who explores should know more about what is out there than someone in town.
Bastion is an adventure site. It is not a hub. Not a main menu. Not an online shop. People die in Bastion! They get tricked and take wrong turns. They fall victim to industrial accidents. When characters haul the treasure out of the expedition site, and slog their way back through Deep Country or the Underground, they don't get to switch off just because they're in the city. Run it like a dungeon. Draw a map, fill it with odd stuff, punish mistakes. When they go off-grid, roll on tables and make stuff up. People are unhelpful. Places are difficult to get to. Things run bumpily. Finding medical treatment is an adventure. Going shopping is an adventure. Getting the train to the library is an adventure. No fast travel without complications. No downtime without decisions. No switching off. Everything is the game. The game is always on.
|Neverwinter: "unrealistic," whatever that means|
|Whiterun: surprisingly, equally "unrealistic." Credit here.|
|See how there are districts but then also sites|
of interest within each district? They're both
helpful structures, trust me.
If the players are in the woods, you can just say "there's a bunch of trees" and that's acceptable. That's as much information as they need in order to know what to do there. But if they enter a town, you can't just say "there's a bunch of shops" and leave it at that. Nothing is ever "just a shop." The player needs to know what any individual shop is in order to know how they interact with it. The specific answers make the difference between whether or not they feel it's worth their time to interact with those shops or treat them as background color. But you also didn't say "there's a shop" which they could choose to go to or not. You're offering "a bunch of shops," and you'd have to provide that level of info for all of them. That's an unreasonable amount of work.