City campaigns can be deadly affairs full of politics, intrigue, betrayal, power-struggles, and all manner of lowly denizens ready to cut the first purse – or throat – that comes along. All the elements of a good story can play out against the backdrop of a city. Don’t believe me? Here are some things to consider when building a city, and some ways to insert action and drama into a city-based D&D campaign.
Society & Rulership
Consider the social strata of the city. Who is the ruling class? Are they associated with a particular guild, temple, or criminal organization? They could rule out of a sense of duty, a family legacy, a lust for power, or another motivation of your own devising. What is the prevailing alignment of the city? Do people fight for goodness and justice, or do they look out for themselves at the expense of others? Are most of the citizens unaligned because of apathy or a higher purpose?
If your city has a middle class, it could be comprised of merchants, tradesmen, and laborers. They could band together to form unions and guilds to improve their situation. Many cities place criminals in the lowest strata of society, but what if the reverse was true? What would your adventurers do if they found themselves in a city where the criminals called the shots and the good and decent people were also the poorest and most downtrodden?
Of course, your city could be governed by priests of a certain religion. Their army could be led by paladins. Or maybe your city is ruled by wizards who use magic to discover crimes and mete out punishment. Have fun coming up with a society of your own and watching how the PCs deal with it.
City-based conflict goes far beyond the standard “save the citizens from the orc raiders” plot. Of course, outside threats are a good way to get the PCs to band together against a common enemy. But think of the countless threats that lurk inside the city itself. Wherever large numbers of people gather, there are sure to be predators vying for power and preying on the weak.
Who are the predators in your city? You could draw up competing organized crime rings, malcontents plotting to oust the current ruler, mercenary wizards flooding the market with cruel magic items, and corrupt temples that prey on the fear of the masses. Things can get ugly when thief and assassin guilds go to war. And what about the trading companies? Are they beset by pirates, or do they engage in piracy themselves? Serial killers and arsonists can also make life interesting for the PCs.
Violence and crime are threats in any city. So is disease. Imagine the number of casualties an epidemic would cause. A plague, natural or magical, could start in the poorer section of the city, and then spread like wildfire as servants and merchants carried the disease to the upper class. Or the city could be hit with a divine curse. The plot potential is endless.
City encounter decks should include much more than physical combat encounters. Think of the things you might see when wandering through a fantasy city. Funeral processions, wedding feasts, famous heroes, and crimes in progress all add to the atmosphere of a city while presenting plot-hook opportunities. Be sure to include fires and other environmental hazards as well. If the city has a large graveyard, you’ve got a chance to bring undead monsters into play. If the city is located near an ocean, sea monsters could be encountered.
All in all, a city is just another form of dungeon. It’s got its own ambiance and ecology, its own heroes and villains, and its own set of dangers and dilemmas.
The 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide contains useful information for building a city of your own, from the lowliest settlement to the busiest metropolis. Start with their advice, then add some warring factions to the mix. Stir in a dash of political intrigue and a hearty handful of peril. Bake the whole concoction in your imagination until done, then serve and enjoy!
Which do you prefer and why – a wilderness campaign or a city-based setting? Tell me about it in the comments section.