Sunday 11 October 2015

Street Guide Without Streets

Cities in adventure games demand a different logic than underground or wilderness adventures. The house-to-house detail that has traditionally characterized city supplements doesn't work and isn't needed, as Zak S first figured out in Vornheim.

Is all of this strictly necessary?
Wildernesses or dungeons are places where access is difficult (so mapping them is fun),but cities are places usually set up so that access is easy through a network of streets (so mapping them is pointless). There is discovery, but it doesn't follow geographical lines. The exceptions to openness -- forbidden cities of privilege; no-go slums of peril -- prove the rule. These areas cease to work as cities do in an adventure game, and begin to work as dungeons, like the hoary cliches of the monster-infested urban sewers or necropolis.

In my own Muleteers campaign, built from Joe Bloch's works, the Grey City counterpoises the tentpole dungeon of the Mad Archmage. Visits to the city sometimes end in impatience to get on with the adventuring, but still can take up to half of a four-hour session. But even though I'm using a detailed street map of the place, the geography never seems to stick, I don't keep a good idea of what shops are where, what they are like, and so on.

This suggests that I need a way to write down and systematize what matters in the city experience.

The Muleteers use the city for the following activities:

  1. Buying equipment
  2. Selling and identifying treasure finds
  3. Leveling up (taking one day per new level, in my rules)
  4. Carousing and other means of spending money for experience
  5. Brokering deals with religious, trade, scholarly and government bodies
  6. In the campaign's early days (less so now, as action has concentrated onto the megadungeon and frontier village), mini-misadventures from random encounters in the streets
For the first five, the journey and exact location are not as important as what can be done there. The random happenings (#6) do sometimes spill out into a full-fledged chase, but for this only a vague sense of geography is needed: the city is divided into districts; each district's streets all connect to each other and the process of finding out where things are is usually trivial; only between districts are there changes of atmosphere, walls and divisions.

The result is this template and guide (click to enlarge):

You'll see that with access to private and secret establishments, there is a process of discovery in the city too, but it works differently. The examples give an idea how: random encounters and establishments, if treated right, give clues and leads to others. This can be expanded to whole districts of social elites being off-limits unless you know the right people. I'm going to try this method at the next city phase of our adventures and see how it turns out.


  1. The building by building city map while useful by some measures is just a strange thing in RPG games. It is better to breakdown and describe neighborhoods and maybe think about how that neighborhood changes during a day.

    1. Yes! I was thinking about having separate day and night streetlife tables, but then again,maybe the whole city by night deserves its own "district" with all-night establishments an encounters.

    2. I worked in a part of Boston once known as "the combat zone" that slowly morphed into "The Theater District" or got eaten up by the growing Chinatown and over the years it has been a very different place at 7 Am on a workday, 9PM on a Friday and 2 AM on a Sunday.

  2. That template will be handy but I still like to have a visual for a city. Nothing street by street but something that shows which neighborhoods/districts butt up to each other & what is generally in each one.