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Design Rules for City Adventures




City adventures have always been difficult for me to run as a DM. The thought of all the buildings, all the NPC’s, all the potential roleplay and the challenge of mixing other components into the session—like fighting and exploration. Roleplaying NPC’s can be fun, but when you have a city full of them, it can be difficult to make each different and interesting at any given moment. It’s also a challenge to prepare ahead, much like wilderness adventures, because the party has several options on where to go.


I decided to challenge myself and create a city adventure—City of Illanter: Kellerin’s Rumble--- my first attempt. This adventure was created in a month for my Patreon. As soon as I started, my first thoughts were to try and get the party into the sewer. Epic failure. A sewer is like a dungeon right? Although sewers can be part of cities, it didn’t feel like a city adventure to me and I didn’t want it to be the focus. Then I decided to take a moment and embrace my fear of city adventures and why it was so difficult for me to run them...what tools would I need as a DM to make it easier?


So I started asking myself a series of questions—why is the party going to the city? What will they do there? What would be the focus or the problem? What sort of important NPC’s are in the city? Who runs the city? What are the laws? Are there holidays? Are there monsters hidden in the city? Holy hell, your imagination can blow up with all sorts of ideas with just a few of these questions and suddenly a city adventure becomes daunting once more. Then I realized one of my new rules for designing city adventures—constraint to movement.


Rule #1 Constraint to Movement


That’s a weird thought….constraint to movement. It sounds restrictive and borders on a railroad type adventure and I prefer to do sandbox and provide choices for players. But asking myself all those city questions—the city quickly erupted into more of a mega-dungeon feeling. That was a cool thought and something I wanted to explore, but I had a time limit as my adventure was due at the end of the month! So I had to find a way to constrain the movement for focus. I wanted a mansion, bits of a sewer, and a warehouse.


To constrain the movement even further, I added an “Anchor”. In my mind, an Anchor is similar to an ‘Adventure Hook’, but it’s something that a party may find irresistible and heavily borders on the ‘railroad’ train of thought, so I don’t like using them often. But it’s my first city adventure, so decided to give myself a break. “You won a deed to a warehouse!” Boom—an anchor. Now they got a reason to be in the city AND the warehouse, which constrains their movement and started to make this adventure more manageable. Shame on me though, I added a second anchor--”You are invited to the mysterious Kellerin’s Rumble”--basically a game that happens once a year, inside a mysterious mansion. These two Anchors now give the party a reason to be in my two main locations (warehouse and mansion).


Rule #2 Randomness


The mansion and warehouse felt more like a ‘dungeon’ now and easier for me to handle. However, it was still lacking that ‘city feeling’ to me. I needed something to help make the city feel alive when the party emerges onto the street or buildings. So I went back to my trusty dungeon tools---rumors and wandering encounter tables. That always helps to give an adventure some life and depth and can be part of the fun for a DM. But I knew I wanted a little more help. If the party started roleplaying in every shop, building, or tavern, I needed more tools. Thus, the random NPC table was born, with names, appearance, personality and some notes or quirks to help me roleplay them off the cuff. I decided to just go with that instead of a wandering encounter table as I was lacking time and felt it was more useful for the city. But something was still lacking and off balance…..I realized my Rule #1 was bothering me a bit and I needed something to balance it out, plus give the adventure a notable difference between a dungeon and a city.


Rule #3 Events or Situations


This rule nailed it for me and felt it would be helpful for me if I was a DM for the city adventure. I added a table of events. These were random events that could be happening at any time and could involve the players or not...it’s fluff...BUT, it helped make the city come alive in my opinion—narrowly dodging a chamber pot, observing or being a victim of a pickpocket attempt, watching a parade of priests headed to the river….similar to a wandering encounter table, but could also just be in the background.


Rule #3--Events and/or Situations was the balance I needed for Rule #1--Constraint to Movement. Although its use was to enhance the environment, it’s main importance was to provide an abundance of choices for the party. This also led me to develop my Adventure Hooks. After using two Anchors, you probably didn’t think I would still use Hooks, but the Hooks went hand in hand with Events and made the Anchor more appealing. Suddenly the party has opportunities to meet with some seedy thieves for a mission, or a depressed noble who wanted something back, or a boy who keeps hearing someone singing inside the mansion and wants to know what or who it is...mini-quests within the main quest.


So that opened the door for adding the sewer and providing an opportunity to do something different than the typical wererat lair. It wasn’t the focus now, but an alternative way to enter the mansion depending on what Hook the party went after. So now the party could arrive through the front door and attend the Rumble, or sneak their way in to the mansion and use the Rumble as a distraction to search the mansion. I failed in that I didn’t add a third option—the roof. I kick myself because I had in my rough notes to add something about it, but it got lost in the shuffle. Sigh...oh well..next time!


In essence, by following these three rules: the DM takes away some power from the players by constraining movement to assist the DM in focusing on a specific area—which helps them prepare and run a smoother session. The DM has some useful tools for randomness to make the game fun for them and to keep things fresh. And finally, the DM gives power back to the players by providing Events and Situations that provides environment enhancements, opportunities, goals, and a boatload of choices back to the players.


I ended up surprising myself by thoroughly enjoying the creation process for a city adventure. I immediately saw the danger (potential?) of city adventures though—once you dig in, they are like mega-dungeons. Where an event may form a chain(s) of events and finding a stopping point is imperative unless time is not an issue. On my second city adventure attempt—The City of Vermilion, I learned two new rules that helped me that I’ll share in a future post.


Bryce Lynch at 10’ pole gave it a review: https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=4480

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