Thursday, October 9, 2014

Imagining a City

As you learn to DM there seems to be several stages you go through.  First, you master the enclosed space of a dungeon.  Then you have to figure out how to handle a bigger "wilderness" area, whether it's underground or a true wilderness.  And, at some point, you need to figure out how to deal with the "City."

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.
  • Wedding
The Bustling City
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.


  1. Don't forget the most important part of running a city in a rpg: seeding lots of hooks to get them back out of the city! You can do that in the same ways you would do it anywhere else, treasure maps, rumors, scheming npcs...

  2. As fun as Lankhmar and Zamora are Fafrd, the grey mouser and Conan are always leaving them to go someplace else you know?

  3. Cities (and towns) have rhythms as people wake, got to work, have a meal, work some more and return home. Showing how this rhythm effects the city and different areas of the city will help it come alive.
    When I was a kid Monday to Friday Boston was different from Saturday or Sunday Boston, The commute becomes snarled and the streets oddly crowded for a few weeks before and just after college classes start until the students get used to the city. When the Blue laws were still a big deal Sunday large stretches of the city and immediate suburbs was sleepier and slower placed as the business of business simply wasnt happeing and the focus was on individuals, church, and family. On moday morning it was abuz with people getting up nd going to work; by mid morning te chaos of the rush was over and the steady flow of business was in place in commercial and business areas, resedential areas are quiet with little traffic beyond delivieries and repairmen. Midday will be a rushed frenzy as workers get lunch and the afternoon will be busier as thee day melts into afternoon nd the evening rush hom start, some commerical areas will simpl shut down other will slowly wake up until they shutdown for the night. All hat just barely scrathecs the surface but if you can develop and communicate the rhythm of life in a city it will improve the cities place in the campaign.

  4. Thanks for the comments and so sorry for the late response.

    @Lum: Yeah, it's a tough balance, if you make the city interesting, why should players want to leave. In fact I think posts about Western Marches type games, where players are exploring and discovering a world, emphasize making cities boring-- the excitement is out in the world.

    But your mention of Fafrd and Grey Mouser is actually a good counter example. I can't think of a better example of a city adventure than "Lean Times in Lankhmar." I'd like to figure out to have those kinds of adventures in the city.

    @JD: That's a really nice example of a living city. I absolutely think video game cities should be modeling some of that. For our weekly meetup, It's more narrative time, like in a TV show, we zoom in when things are happening so it's hard to paint these finer details. But there should probably at least be a difference between night and day and it would be nice to have a special holiday, or pilgrimmage season or something.

  5. Oh, I also forgot,the biggest problem of cities, probably the defining problem, is that players feel safe to go off and do their own thing. So, if you have 5 players all of a sudden you need to come up with 5 interesting things and then hopefully tie them somehow back together later (at least some of the strands, anyway). This difficulty is the biggest driver behind my use of the auction and trial ideas, because there were lots of avenues for getting people involved.

  6. I used a 'bulletin board' in my city to keep events and side-missions percolating through the campaign (though I was not as focused on stuff happening inside the city in the first campaign).

    My second campaign cheated a little and used the city itself as sort of dungeon, as most of it was ruins that needed to be reclaimed from squatting monsters etc. and also made it necessary for the players to 'map' out the city to find particular places like the old scriptorium, the old adventurers' guild hall, or a disused temple.

    Love your idea about an arena for competitions that involve the whole party, and using auctions and parades to throw out plot hooks and introduce factions.

    I have a copy of Vornheim and like the idea of a more abstract city plan, though maybe not the Vornheim vibe specifically.

    Cities have been the ruin of many a campaign in my experience though, for just the reasons you mentioned: splitting the party and (on the opposite end of the spectrum, kinda) getting too safe.

  7. Thanks for the great comment. Yes, Vornheim has been very helpful (in fact the idea in there of having players doing various things when they are busted by the law is probably what led me to think of the trial and auction ideas), but oddly didn't have some things I felt I needed -- like encounter tables and a system for dealing with the split party.

    I love the idea of re-establishing a ruined city. Did people repopulate the areas that monsters were cleared from? So you clear the scriptorium and next week scribes will answer library-type questions?

  8. Here's what I do with cities:

    First (oh! the horror!) I use the Cluster Generation mechanics of Diaspora (a FATE game). Those rules were designed to make star clusters (Diaspora is a Traveler-like game in some aspects), but I use them to create the Major Sites of a city (using Threat, Adventure Hooks, and Population).
    I ignore the whole Aspects-thing that FATE uses, but I love the final linked sites. Each link represents a major street or something like that, so I can describe how is the landscape quickly (from the Tavern you took the Cobbler's Street, pass the Cathedral, turn right on the Gold Digger's alley and finally reach the Market Square).
    There are a few cluster generator applets on the web, and the Diaspora SRD can be found easily too.

  9. Telecanter, if you'll allow a bit of self-promotion.... My own Best (Copper)-selling supplement City Slices I: Marketplace Fun takes a TON of the work out of the sights, sounds, vendors, food hawkers, and the like. It can be found here....