So I wake up today and see this posted as a comment on my About page.
My name is Oliver Raymond, I’m from Melbourne, Australia,
And I fucking dig your Gutterpunk setting, I’m interested in how you run your urban adventures, as I’m intending on starting up a gritty, low-magic, urban fantasy campaign of my own in a city I call Seagate, on a continent known as The Sprawl. Anyway, I’d love it if you could shoot me an email with some advice on running urban sessions, as I ideally want to make my city the focus of the campaign, I intend for it to be the source of dungeon-delving, but also to use the twisted alleyways as a kind of ‘wilderness adventuring’. Any advice would be hugely appreciated!
Cheers from down under!
Instead of writing up an email, my immediate thought 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 worked out.” And then I went and forgot about it for the rest of the day, because I need to have all of my stuff out of my apartment by ten o’clock tomorrow morning and I hadn’t done any packing yet.
But now I’ve got everything but a mattress, a chair and a makeshift desk stowed safely away and the whole night ahead of me, and I remembered that comment.
Oli: Here’s some advice. I give no guarantees as to how good it is. Your players are not my players, and what works for one group probably won’t for another, but if any of it helps, you’re welcome.
Welcome to the City
In the following advice, I will assume you are baseline competent enough to throw together plots, fights and characters in interesting ways. This post will not focus on the basics of GMing, but rather on how running a game entirely in one city is different than a normal game, and how you can compensate and/or take advantage of that
The Hostile Environment
In a traditional D&D dungeon crawler, a lot of the game is defined by location. Specifically, it is defined by the wilderness, and the fact that the wilderness hates you. Roving bands of orcs and highwaymen lurk behind every tree, wolves move in to try and kill you while you’re sleeping, and goblins steal all your food when your back is turned. Getting from town to the dungeon (or whatever the players’ objective is) can be an adventure in itself. The idea that the world is hostile to the party is important for making long-term decisions count. The fork in the road represents a major choice in this type of game, because one route might be clean, easy trails, and the other might descend into the murky hell of Everrot Swamp.
The city is not a wilderness. It is much smaller, for one thing, allowing players to traverse it in a matter of in-game hours rather than days or weeks. That, just by itself, changes things. Players do not have bring pack animals carrying large amounts of food and other supplies everywhere they go, or wear huge backpacks with all their gear in them. If they do not have a lair (even a bedraggled tenement), they will soon acquire one, and from then on they do not need to worry about how much they can carry because they know, for example, that if they aren’t going to need their portable battering ram today they can just leave that shit at home.
The other major factor that negates the hostile vibe that the wilderness puts out is that the city is tamed. The City Watch or whatever patrols the streets, and unless you’re really unlucky or venture into the poor quarter wearing all your swag you probably aren’t going to be killed by bandits. The chances of wolf attacks are even slimmer, and marauding bands of orcs will likely never make an appearance. The players should be able to get around the city without running into too much trouble. The combination of the presence of the Law and the limited environment means that travel is both safer and less of an issue in the city. If you’re traveling from Castle Rahas in the north to the fabled island of Verdan far to the south, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that you might run into executions, bandits, rebels, monsters, and mad wizards along the way. If you are walking from the Bazaar to the Grand Cathedral, however, you expect less to happen. It all comes down to scale, and the smaller scale of the city can always be more easily dealt with by the players.
So how do we fix that?
Scale: First of all, you’re going to need to measure time differently. When running a party traveling on an overland map, the usual method of telling time is by the day. If you’re used to dealing with a map of your game world, you probably have a good idea how long it takes to get from one place to another on foot or on horseback–three days from Rahas to Death Mountain on foot, one and a half with horses, that sort of thing. Take your map of the city and do that same thing, but with hours and minutes instead of weeks and days. You should know by heart how long it takes to get from the harbor to the palace, and what the fastest route is. Step two, after you’ve switched gears in your brain and started using hourly travel times instead of weekly, should be to increase the pace on everything. Out in the wilderness, things take a while to happen. If the players wipe out an outpost belonging to the evil duke, he’ll probably receive word later that week, and by that time they’ll have long-since made good their escape. Maybe he’ll assemble some knights or something and come after them a month down the road, I don’t know, but the point is that it takes a while. If that same party in the city kills a gang who reported to that same evil duke, however, he will know about that shit within ten minutes and have a brute squad coming after them within the hour. The reason you need to know the fastest route between every location is because time should always be of the essence. The vile pagan ritual is not happening a week from now at the standing stones, it’s happening in five minutes, down by the park. One of the best adventures that you can do in a city that you can’t do anywhere else is the one where the players can’t get where they need to be in time just by running, and need to come up with a more creative means of transport off the tops of their heads. Shorten the time frame on everything, and the advantages given to the players by the lack of physical distance should go away.
Smaller pieces of advice related to what I talked about above:
- Every time your players need to get somewhere, roll a die on a random table of Shit That Might Get In The Way. Most of the items on the table should be “Nothing gets in the way”–call it 60%–but the rest should be stuff like “Overturned cart has created massive traffic jam,” “Seconds of a pair of dueling nobles have cleared the street and aren’t letting anyone through,” “Religious procession,” and “Wizards.” Basically, something is blocking the shortest path, and you have to take a detour.
- Whenever something comes up that necessitates a detour, let the player choose between a longer, but safer route or a shorter, more dangerous route. This could be as simple as “Freerun across the rooftops or work your way around the crowds” or as complicated as “Take the outer loop and add an hour to your travel time, or get there in ten minutes by cutting through the Narrows and risk getting mugged by troll hobos.”
- If you’re playing D&D or some other game where certain powers are measured by the day, e.g. you can cast fireball once per day and then must study to rememorize the spell to cast it again tomorrow, remind everyone about this at all times. When the time frame is small, that day becomes a lot more important.
- Make it hard to get a full night’s sleep. There is very little reason for this other than fucking with people, but sometimes that is reason enough.
Once you’ve got the basics down, the next step to making the Law an essential part of the game (which it should be, because otherwise you’re wasting a city) is to make the Law weird. It’s fun to make the legal system incredibly convoluted, enough that the players cannot keep track of it all, with traditions passed down from mad kings and superstitions from days before anyone can remember. Trials might be held by throwing people off cliffs, ritual air-to-air combat on hang-gliders, or impromptu theater. If you can’t come up with weird legal ideas on your own and are willing to shell out a few bucks, Zak S.’ Vornheim has a fantastic collection of exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t use many of the supplementary rules, fast creation systems or locations from that book, but the collection of random tables in the back goes a long way towards turning any city into a nightmarish landscape of incomprehensible customs and rituals, which is something I very much approve of.
You’re going to need some. You’re kind of limited by the scale of the city, though: on an overland map, the city itself would be the interesting location, but within that city it has to be smaller. Squares, buildings, streets and alleys are your tools here.
Most of the time, traveling the streets of the city is safe. The guards patrol, the walls keep out the barbarian hordes, etc. All this means is that most of your specific locations are going to have to supply the adventure. The Palace? Throw a rock, you’ll hit a guard. The Cathedral? Inquisitors will fuck you up if you so much as squint at it wrong. The pub down in Chain Alley? Do you know the gang that runs that place? They will nail your ears to the door before kicking you out. The point is that, for the most part, these are your dungeons. There are no places in the city that you will not find people, and as such the people themselves need to form your obstacles.
You need to have awesome locations, as is always the case in a roleplaying game. Finding a gang leader in some random tavern and throwing down with him and all his goons is cool, but finding him in the Chain Alley Pub, that little hole-in-the-wall that you get into by walking between two buildings held up only by the massive chains strung between them, ducking under rusting iron and wondering if night has fallen or if the metal is just too thick above you…that, now, that is much better.
Sometimes, though, stuff happens and it’s not in an awesome place. Fortunately for you, that can’t actually happen in the city, because you are in the city. You’ve got a number of ways to make any situation a compelling one, even if you just rolled it randomly in a no-name street without any prep work.
- Other people. Wherever you are, there will be onlookers, people who may become fellow participants at a moment’s notice.
- The Watch. You hear those bells in the distance? They carry those so people know to get out of the way when they’re in a hurry. They can also be used to beat poor fools to death, so maybe conclude this fight quick-like before they get here, yeah?
- Vertical space. One of the great things a city has going for it, fight-wise, is the fact that so much of the space in it is vertical. By this I mean there are rooftops. Hopefully multiple layers of rooftops, or terraces, or something where someone can shoot down at someone else. Vertical spaces make fights more interesting, chases more complex, and basically improve everything you might be doing in the city.
Another easy way around the main problem of locations in the city–namely, that you aren’t going to find any monster-haunted wildernesses to explore–is to simply ignore it and build an area that is a monster-haunted wilderness. For example, in my Gutterpunk game, the city of Tahmoor has been built up upon itself again and again to avoid floodwaters that later receded, so that it has eventually come to be built on a vast network of underground streets and ruined buildings called the Underground. The Underground is half-flooded and home to the worst of the worst, making the bad quarters of the city above look like a park. Here there be monsters, both the traditional and human kind. If you desperately want a traditional dungeon crawl, this is (in my opinion) the best way of going about it. Just remember that the players have the resources of the entire city at their fingertips, and if they decide to hire a crew of common laborers to excavate the treasure from your meticulously-constructed dungeon instead of exploring it all themselves there’s really nothing you can do about it except make it hard.
You are in a city. There are going to be a lot of people. In a way, NPCs are more important than the locations in the city, because you’re going to run into more of them. Where you might run into a couple of people who weren’t trying to kill you during your travels in the wilderness, in the city anywhere you go you will find massive crowds who could not give less of a fuck as to whether you exist or not. There are so many people that you, as the GM, should not even be describing all of them. They are part of the landscape that is the city. However, due to that sheer number of people, you need to have more named, interesting NPCs as well. Characters are the new dungeons, ain’t you heard?
Factions: You need a lot of ’em. Cities are places where all the politicking nobles, smugglers, beggar-kings and witch doctors come to try and make it big, and all of them should have some scheme that the players could either help them with or foil.
Thugs: The city should have an endless supply of these guys. They can either be hired by the players or, more likely, work for their enemies. These guys can be pushovers if you want–they aren’t really that important. Just make sure that they’re there, with a length of lead pipe and a blacksmith’s physique, ready with a growled, barely-literate threat. The players should have a decent fight against these guys, but nothing strenuous. They aren’t smart. Save the hard stuff for the next guys.
Assassins: Individual killers for hire are things that you only really find in cities. Yes, they might leave the city to go kill someone, but the city is where they live and do most of their business. The best assassins should be known throughout the underground, maybe even have fans. And they should be good at what they do. Hearing that No-Nose down by the docks has rounded up his punk brothers and is coming for you should be something to worry about, but hearing that the rest of No-Nose’s family pooled their money after you put that bastard down and hired Naso Sigam to take you out should have you shitting your pants. The idea with assassins–and other heavy-hitting characters like them–is that they should be competent. Make their stats badass, yeah, but most of the trouble they cause the characters should come through how well they plan their attacks. Sniping from the rooftops with a crossbow, only to vanish when the players climb up. Knocking on the door and putting a poniard through the peephole when someone looks to see who it is. Tying the flint striker on a grenade to the door with a bit of string so it goes off if anyone opens it after the first guy got a knife to the eyeball. Smoke-bombs, hidden blades, and poison should all make appearances. Don’t make it impossible for the players, and don’t pull anything that is obviously unfair, but make it clear that these guys are good at their job and should be taken seriously even if it’s only one guy and you’ve got half a dozen in the party.
Difficulty and the Need for Stealth: Because the city is such a small place, it can sometimes be a challenge to separate the stuff that is out of the players’ league from the stuff that they can conceivably handle. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense for the players to have gotten away with something–the guards would have shown up, or a knight, or the wizard that the cultists work for and who lives just down the block. Because of this closeness of handlable threats to difficult threats, stealth becomes much more important. This is not really something that you can do yourself, but maybe mention it to your players. It is easier for people to find out who killed who in a city where someone probably saw it happen than it is in the middle of the godforsaken wilderness. Make sure they realize that their actions have consequences, and that most of the time those consequences will be very fast in coming. If you don’t want to just straight-up tell them that, show it through play. You start a loud fight, the Watch comes running. You kill someone, their brother’s now gunning for you. You steal from a certain rich man, and suddenly there’s a familiar face on the bounty board. You get the idea.
The city fucks with every plan you might make. My advice is, don’t make any. Have something big and interesting happen to kick off the campaign, and then just let the texture of the city run everything else for you. When I’m running my Gutterpunk games, I barely have to do any prep work because I know that Tahmoor will provide enough adventure for the session simply by being the crazy, sin-soaked place that it is and my players being the cunning, gold- and knife-mad people that they are. If your game happens to get off track for an hour because the party needed to take a detour around a parade of shaven monks from the Order of the Machine Within and ended up fighting harpies on a burning pleasure-barge in the river, then that’s time well-spent. Random shit should happen all the time, and it should be awesome, because this is the city, the big city, the only place that matters in all the world, and for all its flaws and all the dreams it’s crushed there’s still something that tastes of adventure in the midnight air, streets lit only by gleaming eyes and sputtering oil-lamps.
Welcome to the city. She’s been waiting for you.
There ya go, Oliver. If you’ve got any specific questions, mention them in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.