Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Why the City?

File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg
"All I wanted was a repeating hand crossbow!"


Continuing the discussion about urban supplements and adventures ...

Cities and towns are ambiguous places in fantasy adventure roleplaying games.


They are safe places where parties can expect to rest, refit, do business, and train in a predictable way.
They are boring places where the above activities take place, between real adventures, with little fuss or muss.

BUT

They are dangerous places of adventure, crime, fights, intrigues, in the tradition of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser and dozens of other fantasy sources.
They are interesting places full of local color and characteristics.

Because of this dual role, and other characteristics such as their non-linear, fractal organization, cities are easy to get wrong in play. Players just want to trade and heal up, but the GM comes barging in with plots and names and scenery and thieves and murderers. Players want to get involved in the city, but the GM doesn't have details, or has so many details that there's no place to start. The encyclopedic organization of nearly every city book ever produced, including the one we looked at last time, doesn't help with this at all.

If you want the city to be safe and boring, in fact, there's no need for any special material about the city, other than a name, location, and approximate size to gauge the availability of goods and services.

Otherwise, it's useful to think about four kinds of "actions" in urban play.

Player-to-GM, mandatory. Players expect they can do a number of things in a decent city or town. Find an inn to rest, a temple to heal, various shops to buy equipment and sell loot, places to train. An urbanity without any of these features is damaged and in need of explanation, as when you buy a sword that is prone to break at the first blow.

Player-to-GM, optional. A lot of urban play revolves around players asking for goods and services that are not standard or listed in the rules. "Can I buy a repeating crossbow? Can I commission one? Can I find an arena fight? Is there a wizard who wants to trade spells with me?" The GM can agree, flatly refuse, or put some kind of test or adventure in the way.

GM-to-player, optional. GMs can also insert clues or hooks to tempt the players into adventure as they go about their mundane business; strange buildings, odd happenings in the street, the old man in the corner of the inn. Or, the players can just get things done and move on to the next dungeon.

GM-to-player, mandatory. This is when characters, plots and situations force themselves on the players. Guards barge in, thieves sneak in, wizards demand their time, the neighborhood is on fire; a thousand ways for the city to compel adventure.

Now, this scheme can help coordinate GM and player expectations about what they think is fun about cities, with players being able to talk about their need for more or less GM involvement at any point in the campaign. But it also suggests a better way to organize books about cities.
  • You start, literally, with the party at the city gates, describing what they see and what they have to do to get in.
  • You list the most common targets of Player-GM Mandatory play -- inns, shops, temples -- how to find them, and any "color" peculiarities about them (the temple has a dragon's skull for a dome! the inn has a goblin barkeep!) The players can stick to that shallow level of interaction, or dive in deeper.
  • You then describe ways to satisfy a number of Player-GM Optional requests, including things they may not have thought of themselves. The unusual goods and services in the town, and what they have to do to access them.
  • You give hooks and encounters that are GM-Player Optional, things they may see in the street. This is how you introduce factions: start with visible signs in society, later the full story of who is involved, and how these interact behind the scenes.
  • Finally, some strong moves that are GM-Player Mandatory. These can proceed logically from the party's other business (they see something they shouldn't have seen, so assassins are sent after them; a messenger from the Red Wizard Guild tries to talk them out of further business at the Blue Wizard Guild store). They can introduce contingencies, countermoves, campaigns.
The first two of these are kind of what I was getting at in the Street Guide Without Streets years ago. It's also a similar structure to the functional method of room description in adventures. With a little thought about what's useful, writers can satisfy both the GM's need for accessible information, and the player's variable needs for involvement with the goings-on in a city.

3 comments:

  1. Nice breakdown. I was never happy with dming Lankhmar for e.g. I couldnt come close to the tension of either the original stories or normal dungeon crawl.

    There is also the player-gm sandbox. Players wanting to effect (not just interact with) parts of the city in ways you cannot predict, effectively making their own adventure hooks.

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    1. Yeah, that is the advantage of the Vornheim approach where you just procedurally generate if players go off the usual path.

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