Seize Everything
Seize Everything

The City as a Sandbox

I’ve had this idea for a while–the same idea that drove the creation of the Gutterpunk system I’ve been working on–for a game where instead of having a map of a few countries with cities, armies and plot hooks thrown in everywhere I’d have a map of one city, used to much the same effect. Separate it out by district, make some sparse notes about each district, drop competing gangs, merchants and political factions into the fray, and just see what the players do with it. This has been what all my design work on Gutterpunk has been leading towards.

Now, I don’t know if I’ll get to run this game this summer. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to run it, to be honest. I wrote up my Gutterpunk system, but as soon as I considered myself with a play-ready version of the rules someone suggested running the city-as-sandbox game using Shadowrun, after I expressed an interest in the game. So things are a little up in the air at the moment, though as I write this I’m leaning towards starting up a Gutterpunk game, if only to see if I’m actually any good at RPG game design.

With that said, whatever system and setting I choose to run the Sandbox City game in, there are a few things I’ve discovered while doing preliminary prep work.


First off, I can’t rely on locations to drive adventures. In the D&D game I’m running at college, the players have a map. They know that it takes them a week or so to get to this point on the map, so if they wanted to go to this other point it would take two weeks, or a month round-trip, travel time which would be fraught with bandits and warlords (because this is the Shattered Lands, after all). That’s multiple sessions right there that I can run with minimal prep, which gives me time to figure out what’s lying in wait at the end of their trek through the wilderness. In a city, on the other hand, you can get to any point on the map in less than a day. Things become compressed. Admittedly, it is possible to have more encounters along the way, because there’s more people between you and your goal, but if you do it feels different. If you’re attacked by bandits (or muggers, in the city’s case), find a strange magical site (standing stones or something, don’t know what a related thing would be in a city), and fight off a flock of strange bird-men, well, if that happens over the course of a week’s travel through dangerous territory, then it’s expected and feels right and natural. If it’s over the course of a few hour’s walk from the east end of the Merchant’s District to the Grand Cathedral, then it feels weird. The city should not (always) feel like a war-zone, while the wilderness definitely can (and, in my opinion, should) be hostile to anyone attempting to move through it.

Potential ways to make locations still dangerous/exiting: Interesting locations (The Cathedral, the Grand Dockyards, the Lord-Governor’s Palace, the City Underground, stuff like that), different means of transportation (bridges, canals, interlocking walkways, whatever), dangerous people (“Oi. Did you think you could get away without payin’ the toll? Get him, boys.” or “Halt! No undesirables are allowed entrance to Embassy Row.”).


Which brings me to people. People are, I feel, more important for the city than locations. I mean, yes, you need to have the locations, but they’re going to become familiar ground rather fast. The players can’t plot a week-long trip across the countryside if you’re trying to have the city itself be the game map. As such, it quickly becomes much easier to introduce new and interesting people than new and interesting places. So if I need to introduce a new major plot point I can either tie it to a location that the players haven’t visited yet, and then convince them that there’s a reason they haven’t heard of this place before after spending so much time in the city, or I can tie it to a newly-arrived individual. Major treasure? It’s not in a dungeon, unless that dungeon is something that was recently dug into by workmen expanding the sewers or something. Instead it’s the hoard of a rich merchant who fled another city for undisclosed reasons and who bought that old mansion overlooking the Artisan Quarter. There’s half of an adventure hook, right there, or maybe an entire hook depending on how much the players are motivated by gold.


And then there’s the flow of information. In my usual D&D game, the players have been able to pretend to the bandits of the Shattered Lands that they totally weren’t those guys who assassinated the warlord Warpol, while still being able to claim the bounty on him from Castle Rahas, because those two groups are far apart from each other and don’t really intermingle. The bandits couldn’t just overhear the Imperial soldiers at Rahas talking about what happened. In a city, though, rumors will travel faster than you. If you kill someone publicly at one end of the city, you’d be hard-pressed to reach the other end without his friends there knowing about it first. This isn’t so much something I need to take into account as it is something the players will have to figure out; the first time they’re recognized on the street by men with knives I think they’ll realize they might need to be more subtle than they’re used to being. Everyone has friends, everyone has family, and in a city they’re likely to live nearby.


So from this I have a short list of things I need to prepare for this game:

-Map of the city, with districts, gang control and landmarks noted

-List of important characters: gang leaders, political figures, etc.

-List of people who would be willing to hire the players to do a job for them.

-Some way to get the players into the city’s underworld without forcing it. This one is going to be the hardest to do. I may end up having to wait for a flash of inspiration instead of just writing whatever comes into my head. The rest can be switched around, discarded, altered at will; this, however, has to be perfect.


A couple of my players just let me know on Skype that they’d like to play tomorrow. If I can figure out a good opener in time, I think I’ll run Gutterpunk. We’ll see how it goes.

  • reply Varrik ,

    I absolutely adore urban adventure. I’ve always liked the idea of Shadowrun mainly because it’s got a lot more interesting cityscapes than fantasy games, or so I’ve heard. I mingled with a city game at the start of the campaign-before-last that I had with my home group, where they spent a good four or five sessions in the underworld of the kingdom’s capital city before they could get out, and there’s a lot of opportunity for variation.

    Also, look no further than Jak II for inspiration. Easily my favorite city sandbox out there, and the setting is fantastic.

    • reply Adam ,

      I haven’t played Jak II, myself. Looking it up on Wikipedia reveals it to be sci-fi. Do you happen to know of anything similar for fantasy-city sandboxes? That would be really useful about now.

      • reply Varrik ,

        Not really, no, but a lot of modern or sci-fi stuff can be converted into fantasy (some more easily than others). For example, a good portion of my capital city areas and questlines were based off of Mass Effect 2’s Omega. Add a dash of influence from one game here, some inspiration from a complete different urban setting there, mix it all up into low-tech fantasy, and you’ve got a large city with distinct districts and workable backgrounds.

        • reply Varrik ,

          Oh wait, Neverwinter Nights 1 might count. It’s even D&D-based, and though I didn’t play very much (and you probably leave the city at some point), what I did play all took place inside the city walls. Not sandbox, but still urban adventure.

      • reply Oliver’s Sprawl: Urban Fantasy Advice « Carpe Omnis ,

        […] was “You know, that would make a pretty good topic for a post. Sort of a follow-up to that City as a Sandbox thing I wrote a while back, talking about how the stuff I thought was a good idea then actually […]

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