Working On A City Campaign

Fortified by Zak S.’s brilliant Vornheim, inspired by my memories and re-immersion into the Judges Guild’s CSIO, and tantalized by the other D&D city guides old and new (100 Street Vendors of the City State, Tarantis, City Encounters, etc.) that I greedily snatched up, I thought my return to DMing would include many city-based adventures – hence the name of this blog.

That turned out not to be the case.

I got quickly frustrated with the first city campaign I ran and returned to wilderness adventures utilizing the classic Outdoor Survival map from Avalon Hill. As I have already reported, this campaign has proved to be quite satisfactory. But, as fans of that AH map know well, lurking at the edges – and scattered throughout the board – are cities and/or towns. What will happen when my players reach one, especially those towns or cities on the edges? How will I prepare for that?

As I see it, I am faced with two kinds of choices for prep work for cities of any size. The first is the “old school” approach: treat it like a mega-dungeon. Map out the streets, hidden recesses, shops, government buildings, markets, temples, jails, etc. Fill that map in with NPCs, craft encounter tables, write (or steal) descriptions, craft political and cultural elements, work out sociological and economic data, etc. Obviously, that a lot of work.

The second option is to do it the “new fangled” way that Zak S. introduced in Vornheim. Don’t try to describe the entirety of the city in detail, but generate parts it quickly as needed and give the players a feel for the unique flavor of the community. Tedious details about how this street intersects with that street slow down the game. Instead, vivid details – details the DM remembers, without relying on reading notes, and the kind of details we hope players will remember long after the game is over – are what is paramount. Some prep work might include rumors, legends, encounter tables and some NPCs – basic structure, a basic outline.

There is, obviously, a “middle way” in which one or two “neighborhoods” are generated. It’s a compromise position in which a more than cursory or randomly “on-the-spot” generated information is provided, but not the kind of excruciating details that tend to lead to a city adventure as “dungeon railroad.” When anyone visits a foreign city, they tend to stay in one neighborhood and have more data on that place than on every other place they visit in the same city. This kind of work would mimic that experience.

I admit that once the “feel” or personality of the city is grasped, the rest of it becomes that much easier to start to feel out and even anticipate. The brilliance of Vornheim was that Zak S. was able to, in a relatively short space, to provide us with enough details to make is seem both real and familiar. I’m aiming for the same effect.

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