The Secrets of Great City Campaigns

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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 Conflict

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 Encounters

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.

19 thoughts on “The Secrets of Great City Campaigns”

  1. My comment is a simple one you leave to digression the attitude of a non hero campaign in a city ruled by thieves and cut throats…. or a ruling class of honest thieves and noble respected cut throats ( from valor not fear ) or perhaps a mis-shappen yet working mix of these classes emalgemed in order to keep a semblence of peace…?

  2. Here’s a thought that i had about cities while reading Pratchett’s Night Watch recently: what if the players were members of the watch? I have a hard time nailing down the exact same people week-after-week to keep a game going (I like to believe that they are really busy and not that I am a crappy DM). So, I figured if they were all members of a city watch, then those players who don’t show up are just walking the wrong beat that evening. You can still run all the same urban-encounters and really, it would make a little more sense. I mean, who are the locals and the local authority actually going to turn to in order to solve crimes, a group of blood-soaked strangers just in from the troll-haunted bad-lands or Constable Jones and the boys in blue? The best part is that you can even pit the players against the “party”. Let’s face it, who here hasn’t had the watch called on their character at least once.

  3. i like good city campaigns where most of the quest start u off at a general goods store where a messenger from the king rushes in to greet the PC and asks him to gather a few of his companions and meet the king for an important quest but most of those dont go too long only like a few days but right now i was in a city (cant remember the name) about a month and a half ago and its still going on right now but i know it is a big quest cuz i am a main PC

  4. I took another look at this article today, having read it once before after one of my players linked it to me in anticipation of our playing a City based game. We’ve been playing in the city for quite a while now, and I thought I’d contribute a few things I’ve noticed.

    A lot of what you have to say here, Janna, is really great and to the point. Cities are pretty amazing as dungeons – try mapping even a small American town and see how many ten-by-ten squares THAT takes…! And when you consider the potential for real dungeon-crawl type encounters – a house-to-house search for instance…well!

    One thing I’ve also noted is, all of you have mentioned directly the city as seen from the viewpoint of adventurers who almost always resort to violence to sort out a situation; the automatic assumption appears to be that the city guard will always have a problem with the PCs and so they must either tread very lightly and stay for short periods, or they must go underground and do all their work covertly. Not that any of this is bad, mind you.

    My players have adopted quite a different approach though. Through their choices and actions in the campaign, they’re on the side of the law – they walk the streets quite openly and are beginning to earn a reputation among the upper and middle class citizenry – a reputation that actually gets them invited to genteel parties and has also earned them the patronage of the King himself. Granted that it doesn’t hurt their standing that two of the PCs are related to said King…but in point of fact they could easily have done things differently and be at a point where they’re all wanted for some crime or other. The way I structured this campaign, they could as easily have become crime lords. My entire campaign is, in fact, structured around the back stories of the characters as much as possible, and the entire city is a kind of sandbox. Even if there weren’t a cult of fanatical devotees to a sadistic dark god trying to infiltrate the city, there would be plenty for the characters to do.

    My particular campaign is set in 3.5 for a number of reasons. One reason is that 4E had just hit the shelves when we started the campaign; another is that our group had tried the first 4E adventure module AND a homebrew campaign, no one really liked it other than our resident “wizard player.” Myself, I had mixed reactions to it. Like Valmar, I find the skill set in 4E to be kind of simplistic. That’s both a blessing and a curse – it encourages a swifter pace, more action, more actual talking rather than dice rolling – as my husband says, more role-playing than roll-playing. But it also takes away the framework that lets the players (and the DM) establish how difficult a given non-combat task is. Being swindled by a level-1 commoner or swindling him should be more difficult than tricking a nobleman out of his jewelry or lying to a judge and getting away with it, right? But as pointed out above, if your players can talk the talk, what keeps them from simply walking all over the scenario? The dice rolls, of course. I find it much easier to use the 3.5 skill system. It might be less streamlined than 4E but at least I know what I’m doing (more or less). Or I can fake it.

    One thing about 4E currently: I can’t fake it there, and everyone at the table knows as much about the game as I do, therefore they know when I’m trying to fake it…and this leads to either someone trying to pull the “that’s not in the book!” argument, or to a complete halt to the game action as we have to sit and look up whatever rule it is…again…and again…

  5. Hi,

    A friend sent me this old link as we’re planning a city campaign right now. Some good general advice here.

    As to the skills argument, I agree with Velmar. Yes, roleplaying doesn’t really need a dice roll but what if someone is abusing that? You have someone playing a low charisma Fighter but the Player is quite witty, quick and good at talking. By roleplaying a talking encounter they are NOT roleplaying their character. Likewise you could have someone who’s isn’t that good on their verbal toes who has gone out on a limb to play a bard. The Skills there act as a back-up and a help to them.

    Pure roleplay is all well and good, but it’s too easy for Players to do the work and not their characters.

  6. @Valmar

    Hit the nail. One of the things the group I run with dislikes and refuses 4e is the lack of depth in skills and trainability. Bluff rolls, intimidate rolls, diplomacy rolls, hide rolls, stealth rolls … 3.5 and earlier are very deep in this regard. 4e is pretty much … blah. :(

  7. @ Propagandroid: Thank you for the compliment. :) I love a good wilderness campaign, too. Mostly because of the monsters; there are a lot of monsters you can find in the wild that just don’t make sense in the city.

    @ Bryce: Try Waterdeep in Faerun (Forgotten Realms setting). It’s a huge trade city with lots of detail. You can find information about it in Forgotten Realms supplements – it spans many editions. I’m sure others will pipe up with good suggestions, too. Good luck!

  8. @ Fishercatt: I’ve actually known a few farriers, but in Texas we just call them horse-shoers. (Usually with a thick accent, unfortunately.)

    @ Jack Phillips: Thank you! I’m glad you found the article useful.

    @ ValmarTheMad: I have to agree with Yax on this one. Roleplay is how most of my players navigate their way through shady deals, bluffs, and diplomacy. The skills are there to use as needed. And don’t forget, you can always use great roleplay as a conditional modifier.

  9. I have a question for you old hands. Do you know good places to get good city settings? Making up your own city is great, but I think my players are getting wise to the NPCs that I create. I’m not looking for a campaign, just a city with pizazz and maybe a few side quests that they can visit while completing their quest. Thanks!

  10. Yax was lucky to find a jewel like you to continue the tradition of great blogs here at Dungeonmastering, Janna. Great work so far, this was a really excellent piece on city adventuring.

    I think I probably prefer conceiving and writing about city adventures, but when push comes to shove there’s nothing like the wilderness for me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve still got that old school groove going, and I didn’t come up in the gamer ranks playing Vampire and other less adventure-oriented games, but exploring and populating “empty” hex grids is still where my heart is at when it comes to D&D.

  11. I played a lot of AD&D from 1982-1988 or so, and have not played between then and early this spring when I decided to jump back into D&D 3.x in preparation for 4e. I’m enjoying playing 4e but there’s really a lack of material ready to go for 4, so my daughter’s campaign is mostly 3.5. But I held onto my old 1.0 materials and have been migrating it to version 3.x, which has been quite helpful in giving our campaign more flavor.

    In AD&D 1.0, thieves had to belong to a guild, give up a percentage of their take, and train to become assassins. As a result, I DM’d a lot for friends who played thieving halflings and the like, which meant having a well fleshed-out city was important for their characters’ development. I found the Judges’ Guild “City State of the Imperial Overlord” and “City State of the World Emperor” to be invaluable tools, as they had large detailed maps and a zillion pre-made npc’s and lots of story hooks to choose from. A character who had become quite familiar with small-town life (say, by looting the Village of Hommlet) would be lost in a large city — which actually made the city itself ripe for adventure. darting through alleys to avoid the city constable, ending up in a dead end and failing in an attempt to climb the wall, would lead to other characters having to break the sorry loser out of jail, turning them too into criminals with wanted posters… it was a Blast to play AND to DM.

    This time around, I’m using a much smaller city — the Judges’ Guild City of Tarantis — and it’s a bit easier to convert to 3.x since I’m painting the city in broad strokes since my daughter is kind of a newbie. However I hope that Necromancer or somebody comes up with pre-built cities for 4e because they can make a good place for adventuring in and of themselves.

  12. @Valmar:

    What kind of mechanics do you need to run a city campaign that’s missing in 4e? Roleplaying and political intrigue do not require a single roll of the dice, do they?

  13. Having run multiple campaigns in 4e since it’s preview-release, and having years of experience running AD&D, 2e, 3e, and 3,5e, 4e really doesn’t seem like it has the mechanics to make a really interesting City game. In 4e there’s just too little depth to the characters’ skills, and little variation among the party. So, we’re reduced to Skill Challenges instead of the deep intrigue and the one-on-one roleplaying that seemed to define the various meetings/interactions/conflicts with NPCs in 3/3.5e.

    3.5e had a much wider array of skill sets, but the skills were tailored to a narrower range of characters and more directly linked to your stats and skill point allocations. This allowed each particular character to shine in a certain area within the city–send the Rogue to the slums to fence some goods with Appraise, the Bard to the tavern with Perform, the fighter to the tavern for Con-based drinking challenges (and the often-needed Intimidate skill), the Cleric can proselytize the masses, and the Paladin goes to her audience with the Lord Warden of the City with Diplomacy.

    In 4e, there’s too few skills and too much skill-set overlap. Since nearly everyone can do nearly everything equally well no one character shines in any particular element. So now you send everyone with Streetwise to one area, and then everyone with Diplomacy to the other…

    In 3.5e, it seems that one person gets the spotlight for five minutes then passes it to the next in line, encouraging roleplaying in the process since only he or she was there. In 4e, since most characters have overlapping skills, it seems that everyone hogs the spotlight simultaneously, or they’re left out entirely.

    my 2c, YMMV

  14. I’d love to try running a city campaign, but get afraid that the players might get bored, might not want to play the game of houses, or whatnot. Still, I think it would be a refreshing change to play in something like this. Especially if it is a large city state like Greece of old, or Ptolus, Waterdeep, or Greyhawk- or whatever the city is called.

  15. I love city campaigns. Lying through dangerous situations with the city guard just over your shoulder, running down strange allys, conversing with the highborn and beggars, all of it. For me, it’s partially just the sociology involved in a well planned city setting. I love to hear the details, or create them, for all the religions, political feuds, and great families. Seriously, I could play for months without ever stepping outside of the city walls if the city were great enough.

    Great post. I’m bookmarking this for future reference.

  16. @Janna
    -1 for using the word “secret” in the title.

    I see cities as the center of stories. Cities lend themselves to hold a variety of races and perhaps a stalemated conflict in between them. One misunderstanding and a full-fledged civil war could ensue. They are also economic and cultural centers. There are thieves, guards, banks, mercenaries, politicians, thespians … a whole bunch of options for story development. The quest themselves need not be in the city, but, rather having your PCs roaming around the city and looking for the quest giver can be very fun, if well done.

  17. I think I prefer a City Setting that has adventures into the great wilderness to deliver messages or retrieve prisoners or what have you. It’s nice when the campaigners are renting the second floor of a farrier and have a place to store all their crap, a place to recieve visitors, and a means for both the Blinged Out Barbarian and the Boring Old Bard to venture out from for solo adventures.

    So…. How many of your are googling “farrier”?

  18. Cities are the best way to make sure your players stay balanced by taking political and conversational skills. A few days of getting swindled by lvl 0 commoners with higher bluff checks than them helps the players to shift their characters back to the center. Cities should be more than just a place to sell lootz.

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