If you've followed my blog you've seen my long process of learning those first two. Recently I've been struggling with the City.
I was born in a suburb 45 minutes north of LA. So when I think of a city I think mostly of freeways and off ramps. It's hard for me to envision even a pseudo-medieval city.
My first city when I started gaming a again was Nidus, the Shifting City. The premise was that this chaotic place had stalls and shops that moved every week if not every day. There was no map. There was no ruler. It was me trying to have the conveniences of a city for my players without having to deal with the difficulties of mapping and then peopling a place with tens of thousands of inhabitants. And it worked pretty well. Players had their own reason to go there - buying and selling stuff- and I had a very big "encounter" table that they rolled on each time they ventured into the city. The encounters weren't dangers or adventure hooks, just interesting stuff you saw. And yet, there was nothing to keep players from making them into dangers or adventures.
I can't make every city a chaotic, bazaar, though. So, when faced with my players visiting a city recently, I was stumped at how to proceed.
The Problem with Cities
One problem with cities is that the assumption seems to be that players will get entangled in various plots and intrigues. But unless players are really high level this is very unlikely to me. It's as if I were to drive into LA and all of a sudden the mayor is asking me favors.
Another problem is that cities are busy places with lots of factions and lots of plots and events going on. But how do you get players involved without railroading them.
A third problem is that, more than any dungeon, cities are about sights, sounds, and bustling scenes. And conveying that kind of sensory stuff through description is always difficult especially if you are trying to do it off the cuff.
So I guess, if you were to boil it down the two big ways I needed, and still need, help with DMing a city are 1) how to make it about more than a place for players to shop (without making the players seem unrealistically like rockstars with all the attention on them) and 2) how to make it feel like a busy, bustling, populated place.
To do this, I think I can take some cues from what I've already learned about sandboxes, some cues from how video games handle cities, and add in some things that are unique about cities.
So, like sandboxes I think there should be locations that players know about and can visit or not. You can prepare subsytems ahead of time and these locales will always be available to be looped into some plot or happening going on in the city. Here are some ideas of some I want to make for my current city:
- Great Library
- Mysterious Oracle
- Guild Work Board - jobs they can take or leave, I can have mini-dungeons attached to these.
- Arena - Maybe not the typical arena, which is very swords and sorcery, but some place where players know they can go to compete. The possibility of competing as a group would be even better.
This idea comes from Jeff Rients' awesome, crazy, parade. If I can come up with more events, these can be like temporary locations-- things going on in the city that everyone is talking about and that players of any level can get involved but don't have to. If they don't get involved they can still affect the whole city going on in the background kind of like a sandbox "happening."
- Auction - I did this already and it was fun and a great way to introduce powerful faction members.
- Trial- there is about to be a big, show trial in which several blag dogs are tried for witchcraft.
- Parade - I have an impending parade of religious barges on the river that runs through the city called the Regatta Gloriosa.
This is probably obvious to you, but a city only exists through it's encounters. The size of it, the tone of it, the flavor of life in that place will mostly be conveyed by things players encounter on the streets. I should have known this from my great experience with the Nidus encounters. But for some reason I thought I was only using those because I didn't have Nidus fleshed out in a way that a normal DM would flesh out a city. So, these encounters are not encounters in the traditional rpg sense that they are dangers that will spark a combat. And they are not encounters in the traditional (if infrequent) video game sense that they are waiting to give you an adventure hook. These are just groups and clumps of people- buskers, locals, pilgrims, delivery wagons-- that will be the city to you players. I need to make one for my current city.
As I get time I hope to flesh out these locations and events in separate blog posts.