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Friday, June 23, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons - Running City Adventures

City of Neverwinter (Forgotten Realms)
I have been getting a lot of emails from people asking questions about how I run adventures in the city of Sigil. Today I'll try to explain the pitfalls of running city adventures/campaigns and how to avoid them.

I know that running an adventure in a city is very disorienting, especially to a new DM. There’s all of these weird factors that you don’t have to worry about when the group is in a dungeon or traveling through a forest.

Cities are big! There are hundreds or thousands of businesses, and tens of thousands of people. How can you possibly be ready for everything when the players have so many options? How can you detail everything? That would take months of hard work!

Focus on the Obvious: You don’t have to detail everything. You just need to know what to prepare. You should prepare the places that the group is likely to go to and the people they are likely going to interact with. There are a few things you’ll always need to detail when making a city:

Taverns: 3 or more, preferably at least one for each district/section of the city.

Inns: 3 or more, same as above.

Shops: Stores to buy weapons and gear. Definitely make sure to have places that will fill the needs of the characters. If you use spell components, you’ll need a shop for that. If the group uses a wagon, you should make up a goofy wagon maker. That kind of thing.

Sage: A sage or wizard. Think in advance about what this person knows. The group is likely to ask questions of them that you didn’t expect, so it pay to know what topics the sage is an expert in.

Temples: A temple for healing, and temples associated to the gods that the group worships. You can do a lot of fun stuff with the church hierarchy. The party cleric can rise up in the ranks and maybe one day run the whole thing.

Come up with what spells the priests of the church can cast, and how much they request in a donation to cast it. You should probably just pick out 5 cleric spells and have those be the ones available (lesser restoration and raise dead being most important).

City of Brass (Al Qadim, Manual of the Planes, etc)
Library: A library or similar venue for research. I like to come up with a few books in the library related to details of the campaign world you want the group to know about, fun books relating to old adventures in-jokes, etc. Maybe a book with a few spells in it? Under lock and key? You need to schmooze the librarian to get at it.

Bank: Some DMs have banks in their games, some don’t. If you put one in, definitely think about the vault and how well it is protected. Also, be careful with the idea of criminals robbing the bank and taking the group’s stuff. If you do this kind of thing a lot, then your group is just not going to bother with it ever again.

You might end up going down the road where the group thinks that you’re introducing things like this just to screw with them. They’ll end up not interacting with anything.

Moneychangers: Adventurers get gems! They want to turn those gems into money! Make up some of these people who can do so. Also.. sometimes adventurers find exotic jewelry. Rich people would love to buy that stuff. Selling stuff to the wealthy is a good way for heroes to cultivate a relationship with some NPCs and it can lead to all sort of cool things.

“Home Base”: It’s tempting to pick out a location that you think would be cool for the group to live in. You might end up putting a lot of work into it. A lot of times, the players are into another location that you did not expect. They want to live there, not in your place. All that work you did might go to waste.

I think that if you get excited about an idea for a home base, just ask the players between sessions - “Is this where you’d want to live?” If they say yes, get to work! Make sure they understand that they shouldn’t go back on this, because you are going to spend some time creating it and if they ignore it, that’s time you could have spent making the adventure better.

Palace: The place the rulers live in. It’s hard to come up with something original. Usually it’s a palace with a throne room and a big hall where they eat. Definitely think about how the ruler is protected. What kind of guards? Spells? Is a court wizard nearby? The rulers of D&D settlements usually end up threatened, evil or dead. Half of the time, the heroes are the ones responsible for the death of the ruler.

Prison: A prison or jail. Sending characters to jail is a really tricky thing. Once the group becomes wanted by the man, the whole campaign is in question. If the group has to flee the city (or if they blow it up) your city campaign is over. But… there have to be consequences to their actions.

City of Gloomwrought (Shadowfell boxed set)

Guard Outpost: Maybe make a guard outpost? There is no question that the group will meet the guards of the city. If you can, try to give your guards something cool so that they stand out. In Waterdeep, the guard all wear magic helmets that alter their voices so that they all sound the same.

Thieves Guild: Some people use them, some don't. If you have a rogue in the group, the guild might want them to join or they might end up in opposition to them. Wealthy adventurers are going to be targeted by thieves, right? At least, in theory they would.

City NPCs

You will also need NPCs. You don’t need to go nuts with this. Just give each one 1-3 characteristics, and if possible, a secret. The secret doesn’t have to be something big. Whatever it is, when the group stumbles on it, the players light up. They realize there’s a lot more going under the surface in the campaign and they start digging deeper into everything.

I recommend making an NPC for each location. You don’t need to make stat blocks, all you need is the commoner stats in the DMG. Just write down their name, race, appearance, and a few qualities that make them stand out.

Backup NPCs: You’ll also want a bunch of NPCs that are not tied to a location. The group will interact with people on the street and all sorts of stuff you might not have anticipated. If they do go into a business that you didn’t have prepared, you can pull NPCs off of that sheet and run it seamlessly.

Just make sure to write down on that sheet where you placed them. It’s very easy to forget their name, where they were, etc. But the players will remember and it will stick out if you draw a blank.

The Big Trap: I say this a lot, but I think it always bears repeating. Do not fall into the trap of having the vast majority of NPCs be negative toward the PCs. Have most NPCs be nice and helpful to them.

The group will like the city and want to save it when the time comes. If everyone in the city is a dick, they’re not going to care and they’ll want to leave or give the people what they deserve.

Prices and Lifestyles 
City of Cauldron (Shackled City adventure path)
This page has everything you need to handle lifestyles and purchasing items.

Sometimes this gets overlooked. How much does everything cost? What’s available?

Detail the Lifestyle Choices: You should know the lifestyle costs, and if possible, come up with some stuff specific to characters in that lifestyle. Players who decide to live in the “wretched” lifestyle because it’s free should see the consequences (which could be fun, not necessarily horrible).

Make up some bums. Make up a filthy alley for them to sleep in. Make up weird animals that bother them in the middle of the night, or people dumping trash out of a window into the alley, unaware that our hero is sleeping there.

The Wretched Adventurer could end up witnessing a murder or rescuing a prostitute from a violent pimp, all sorts of stuff.

Those who take the aristocratic lifestyle should have their own deal. They paid the money, let’s let them reap the benefits. They could go to a swanky gala, join an exclusive club allowing them to rub elbows with the city elite, maybe that money plus a down payment allows them to lease a large home or mansion. Maybe they have a butler! I would love to have a butler go on adventures with me.
They’re so loyal and polite.

City of Korvosa (Pathfinder: Curse of the Crimson Throne)

It can be fun to make up swears, sayings and drugs for your city. Magic drugs! Let’s sniff some goblin paste!

Local Profanity: Making up swears and sayings is tricky. You might end up making a lot of them, but the group isn’t going to be able to absorb or remember them all. It’s hard to make a swear that sounds like a swear, and not something that sounds stupid coming out of your mouth. You might want to look up swears in an obscure language in the real world, then alter it for your game. I would guess that those words in the real world became popular swears because they were effective.

Clothing: As far as clothing style, it can help your game stick out (good or bad). When I was a kid, I loved the American revolutionary war. I declared that everyone in my campaign dressed like they did in the 1770’s. Big coats, powdered wigs, etc. My group always made a face when I'd describe a long blue jacket. They couldn’t imagine it, and it did not enhance the game in any way. It was a little too outside of their vision of fantasy, especially in a world where I don’t allow gunpowder (I don’t like muskets/arquebuses in D&D).

Later, I made the fashion of the city resemble Boris Vallejo paintings. But in my city, most people are not bodybuilders or models. They’re regular schlubs with hairy chests, warts and pot bellies. Yet they wear tiny loincloths and golden armbands.

This worked better, because it was fantasy and my goofy style. The group “got” what I was going for.

City of Tu'Narath (Scales of War adventure path)

This is the part that is really tricky. What are the laws of the city? What are the punishments? How are they doled out? Are there lawyers? If you’re not sure, just make it as simple as possible.

Maybe come up with three categories of crime, each with its own sentence. It’s up to the judge to decide what category the crime fits into, and that’s it.

Magic and the Law: Is all magic illegal? Are certain spells illegal? One fireball could cost a lot of lives in a city.

Wizards and spellcasters working with guards could lead to a lot of fun things. Cleric spells are very valuable for guards. I could see cities tied to a particular faith having one cleric accompany each guard patrol.

If you decide to use magic in the court system/guard patrol/whatever, make sure you know what their spells do. Write down a shorthand version in advance and the page number it is on so that you don’t have to stop the game, look it up, and then figure out the DCs, etc.

Here’s the spells I think are most useful for city guards:
  • Message (PH page 259) A great way for guards to coordinate as they approach your PCs, or for an informant to alert guards outside.
  • Animal Friendship (PH pg 212) Great for handling stray dogs and weird animals that wander in from the forest like bears or wolves.
  • Charm Person (PH pg 221) This is a fantastic spell to de-escalate situations.
  • Command (PH pg 223) "Halt" and "drop" are absolutely perfect commands for guards to use.
  • Detect Evil and Good (PH pg 231) What's better for scoping out shady-looking people who just entered the city?
  • Illusory Script (PH pg 252) For sending messages you don't want other people to read. Lasts 10 days! Seems like this would be used quite a bit in a city.
  • Purify Food and Drink (PH pg 270) I would imagine this would be cast on every meal a ruler was about to eat.
  • Sleep (PH pg 276) A great nonviolent way for a guard to apprehend people.
  • Speak with Animals (PH pg 277) How awesome would it be to a run a scenario where the group is investigating a crime, and the only witness is a stray cat? Maybe the cat doesn't want to talk! Maybe the cat knows too much and a hit is put out on it. If you run a goofy campaign like I do, this is gold.
  • Unseen Servant (PH pg 284) Rich people would probably have people cast this spell to tidy up their place.
  • Arcane Lock (PH pg 215) This is permanent! Any business that makes a fair amount of money might have this, right? Especially if it's a bank vault.
  • Calm Emotions (PH pg 221) All creatures in a 20 foot radius! This is a good way to shut down a riot.
  • Detect Thoughts (PH pg 231) This is extremely valuable to guards and the law. Reading somebody's mind solves a heck of a lot of problems. Because it will be the word of the caster against the word of the suspect, you should probably have it where the caster has sworn an oath and gone through loyalty tests - their integrity is obviously very important and if you don't establish this, your group will question the whole system.
  • Hold Person (PH pg 251) Last up to a minute, plenty of time to slap some shackles on the perp.
  • Magic Mouth (PH pg 257) I personally find these to be hilarious, and I love the idea of a magic mouth spouting the daily news/proclamations of the ruler, or propaganda and law changes.
  • Zone of Truth (PH pg 289) It's getting pretty hot under these lights, isn't it, Driz'zt?
City Adventures
City of Sharn (Eberron)

The first question to answer when making a city scenario is: “Why aren’t the guards handling this?” Two main options:
  • The guards tried, couldn’t do it, and need the heroes to help.
  • If the group is hired by someone to do something, It might be because that person is wanted or involved in something that is technically illegal.
Factions: I think you’ll find that a lot of the adventures in a city start off as things the guards would have no need to deal with. In my experience, city adventures are often about conflicts between people or organizations.

Villains who Skirt the Law: In Sigil, there’s an arcanaloth slaver/mastermind named Shemeshka the Marauder. She runs a casino and on paper, she’s a model citizen. But she does bad stuff! Proving that she broke the law is very difficult because she’s careful about how to handle things.

She might use agents to hire some goons to do something illegal. Then, if the situation comes under scrutiny, she could have the agent killed and the body completely destroyed to prevent speak with dead, etc.

FetchQuest 2: The Questering: A lot of city adventures are about obtaining something. Some bad person wants possession of an item that would allow them to further an evil scheme. Someone running an underground slave operation would definitely want an item that increases the productivity of their slaves, especially if it magically eliminates their need to sleep. They can work 24 hours a day!

Murder Mysteries: These are really hard to do. My biggest problem with them is that it’s difficult to gauge whether it will fill a session! If you’re being fair, the group could stumble on or guess the culprit right away.

If that happens, you might have an urge to block the group, so you don’t have to scramble for material.

I think the best bet is to have another scenario ready, so that if the murder is solved quickly, you can just move on with other stuff you have prepared.

Thieves Guilds: I feel like people don’t use these enough. I know I don’t. They’d make great villains or edgy, anti-hero allies.

City of Sigil (Planescape)

Parties: I have always found this to be true. Players love in-game parties. The heroes go to a mansion, rub elbows with NPCs, drink punch, dance, and then D&D stuff happens. Zombies come in, one of the guests is a polymorphed dragon, thieves try to rob everybody, the mansion gets sucked into another plane, you name it.

I think players like this scenario because it’s so different from normal, and because they have an opportunity to really show everyone what their character is like. We’re not charging from encounter to encounter, we’re investigating, roleplaying, and trying to figure out what D&D thing is going to happen at this gala event. Is the food poisoned?! They’ll always check. Almost always, anyway.

Preparing a Party: It can be hard to make a scenario like this, because it is not linear. How do you prepare it? You could make a map of the mansion as if it was a dungeon to explore, but a mansion is a poor substitute for a dungeon.

What works for me is to make a list of the guests, then make a timeline of what happens when. It’s very simple and it feels loose and fun when you play it out.

When you make the NPC guests, give them some personality and think about how they’d react to the group. If the heroes have been involved in notable adventures, some of the guests might have heard about them and will heap praise upon them.

Investigation: Aside from murder mysteries, the group might go through other investigations. Find out who is sending death threats, figure out who or what this mysterious entity is that keeps appearing on a certain street at night, find the source of a lycanthropy outbreak, etc.

I’ve found that the best way to handle preparing these is one step at a time. They go to the first site to investigate. They find a few clues that point to different directions. Write down where each of them leads and detail what happens when they follow them.

The group might need to go to all three locations to piece together a clue that takes them to the next step. Or, maybe the group can learn enough at any of the three sites to move to the next step. It’s up to you. Just make sure not to have it feel like filler, like you’re padding it out to fill time. Each place should be consequential and worth visiting.

Investigations involve questioning NPCs, so definitely focus on making interesting, fun NPCs and think abut their motivation.

If you can, make an NPC who is hiding something. The group might pick up on it, they might not.
Just drop a clue. If they pick up on it, they could learn something valuable or gain an item.

Rewarding them for digging is important, otherwise it can feel like they just go to a location and automatically find something, then move on to the next step. If possible, litter each locale with one or two easter eggs that aren’t necessarily connected to the story.

Stay on Target: Don't let cities freak you out! Almost all of the best sessions I've had were in cities. If you can get comfortable with it, a lot of fun can be had.



jonnie said...

If you are running a city adventure and you are not using Vornheim the Complete City Kit, you are doing it wrong, like someone who try to fly with no wings.

Anonymous said...

This is amongst the best and most useful articles I've ever read. Thank you very much!

Pedro Obliziner said...

I'm going to run some adventures in Sigil for my players, so I'd love to see specific things for this city =]

I'm thinking about using/adapting Vorhein for it, it has a weird feeling that matches planescape and provides a frame for a city crawl

Sean said...

Livingstone: I've never read it. I'll check it out, thanks!

Anonymous: Awesome, thank you!

Pedro Oblizinier: There is so much good planescape stuff out there to use! Doors to the Unknown looks very cool, someday I will run it. If you haven't, you should check out the planewalker site, tons and tons of stuff! The site is a little odd when it comes to navigation, but there is so much material there.