Thursday 8 November 2012

The Dungeon Is Safer Than the City

I'm reflecting on our last game session. It was one of those where not a lot of high adventure went down. Mostly it was about traveling to a new city, settling in there and accomplishing various administrative tasks - selling loot, buying goods, carousing for experience, setting some henchmen to leveling up. One player was absent, so her character was parked with an NPC for the duration.

And it's a "what now" moment for the party - having just finished a big quest, they're finding that events are moving rather quickly, and a war is brewing between humans and Faerie. After sending a "telegram" to warn a kind-of-ally on the borderlands (magpie + speak with & befriend animals + Magic Mouth), what next?

Well, our heroes have some idea they should stop the war, but how? Call it an intriguebox or what you will, but the railway station is far from evident at this point. There were some cautious attempts at intelligence gathering, but still, the realization was heavy that, well, one does not just walk into the Archimandrite's audience room with an audacious plan.

Get out now, while you can!
I still believe that these low periods are necessary to play up the moments of high adventure. All the same, this session also made me realize that adventurers have a reason to play out their city visit as a peaceful interlude. Yes, an urban setting can provide more than enough adventure and has possibilities the standard wilderness/dungeon expedition doesn't. But precisely because of this, it can feel more threatening to a cautious, pragmatic party than the terrors of the underdepths. And this in turn can cramp their style.

See, in a dungeon, you are confined and channeled ... but so are the monsters. You take things, generally speaking, one thing at a time. In a wilderness, the enemies are all around, but few and far between. But if you seek adventure in a city, there's a web of interconnections and interests all around you. Pull the wrong string, and the city guard, the lynch mob, the thieves' and wizards' and vampires' guilds are all on your tail. Not to mention the guilt of all that collateral damage to innocent citizens as your fireballs and lightning bolts vaporize your foes.

And the dungeon is nice and easy to find your way through. One door, two doors, three doors, dead end. It's even laid out in nice 10 foot squares for your mapping convenience. The city, though ... how do you sift out the adventure location from the rag-picker's house or the vacant lot? How do you follow a trail through tens of thousands of people?

Finally, once you're done with the dungeon, you're done and you move on. But with a city, you want it to stick around for you, with all its possibilities, commerical opportunities, and allies. Wrecking a dungeon is much less consequential than wrecking a city, or otherwise turning it against you.

Hell, get me out of this city, with its taxes and tithes, its envious eyes, its rats and 8% chance of diseases, its teeming masses all looking for a chance to overbear you and roll your corpse for its suspiciously weighty cache of gold pieces and magic items! Put me in a nice, safe, predictable dungeon - that's where I know I can be the adventurer I want to be.


  1. The city, though ... how do you sift out the adventure location from the rag-picker's house or the vacant lot? How do you follow a trail through tens of thousands of people?

    Heh. When I was 11 and designed my first "city" I used legal sized graph paper sheets and made the squares 20' each and treated the streets just like corridors and the buildings just like rooms.

    The whole city was about the size of the Caves of Chaos and had a population in the 100s, commensurate with its diminutive extent.

    Those were the days.

    1. The old computer game "Bard's Tale" had that approach, too.

  2. Every time I travel I bring back a map, exactly because I feel like I need to have a real overview of the whole city in order to be able to run anything in it, exactly because I want to know how far the players will have to run and around how many corners to reach the gate or the sanctuary of the temple when the angry mob comes after them.

    Why is it always when I'm busiest that I get the most ideas for blog posts? Now I think I should do a post just grabbing a set of small cities off Google Maps and presenting them as readymades for all your fantasy campaign needs.