12 April 2023
Why hitting the pavement can be more fun than landing in the dragon-pat
Words by Richard Jansen-Parkes
Most RPGs have a definite bias towards the rural. Think of a typical adventure scene for any traditional fantasy campaign, and you’re likely to conjure up something set in a cave on some lonely hillside or in the woods just beyond a tiny, beleaguered village.
This is a real shame because, with just a few moments of thought, it becomes clear that cities have so much to offer to your game. A good city is packed with thieves’ guilds and tavern brawls and is home to thousands upon thousands of NPCs just waiting for interaction.
There’s nothing worse than having your campaign bogged down in some poxy little hamlet and having to think up an interesting story for Derek, the miller’s son, but when you’re in a metropolis, you don’t have to! Every street teems with strangers, sailors, and soldiers, every one of which has an excuse for an exciting backstory.
Of course, this isn’t the only reason why cities make for excellent settings…
PRESSURE COOK YOUR GAME
Perhaps the most enticing thing about running an adventure - or even an entire campaign - within the walls of a city lies in its compact, high-pressure environment.
You would be hard-pressed to run a lengthy story set in even a hundred square miles of wilderness. In a city, however, you can have foes ranging from giant rats to reality-warping demigods within a ten-minute walk of one another. The setting squishes everything together, allowing you to access everything you could ever need to run a campaign without having to walk your heroes across the length and breadth of a continent.
Does your story need a suitably spooky tomb? Well, there are plenty of weed-choked graveyards in the old quarter. Do the heroes require the aid of an archwizard? Wouldn’t you know it, there’s an arcane university just across the main road. Are the players hankering for some politics? Bam – look at all these scheming nobles, about half of which live on the same street.
This compact presentation of adventure also helps keep the party grounded in the setting. They aren’t travelling to a new tavern every night but are returning to the same one over and over again, so when the inevitable dragon attack does happen, you can have a handy target already selected.
A WEALTH OF… WEALTH
Though modern adventurers tend to come with slightly more complex motivations than “I want to sleep on a bed of gold coins and own a marble castle,” there’s no doubt that a big pile of cash can be useful when it comes to getting your heroes out of bed in the morning.
Fortunately, if there’s one thing that big cities are good at, it’s being jammed with plenty of cash. All those shops and factories and ports are minting masses of moolah every day. Admittedly, not much of this might be in the pockets of the common people - even the nicest places usually have a poorer stretch of town – but it’s still there, just waiting to be acquired. Legally or otherwise.
Of course, money has many uses beyond simply enticing adventurers into action. A wealthy city can pay for fascinating magical defences, grand theatres that host shows based on the party’s heroics, and plenty of assassins and mercenaries waiting for them to let their guard down.
The sheer wealth of a thriving city (or a sufficiently exploited one) can easily explain away the presence of anything and everything cool. Running across a newly designed airship in a quiet backwater town feels like a massive, immersion-breaking coincidence. Finding one in a fantastical spin on New York feels right and proper.
DIVERSITY IN YOUR POCKET
Of course, airships aren’t the only cool thing that crops in cities before making its way out to the provinces. Metropolises are also home to a wealth of diverse cultures, backgrounds, and– in some settings – species.
This can be an incredible boon for your players. Now, they no longer feel the need to justify how a half-devil sorcerer, a steampunk gnome, and a lizardman shaman all ended up in the same quiet tavern in the fantasy equivalent of rural Herefordshire.
More than this, it allows you to inject virtually anyone you can imagine into your game world without any risk of breaking verisimilitude. If the city you’re playing with is big and important enough, it’s easy to see how they could run into a traveller from the other side of the planet just when their knowledge is about to become handy.
Hell, it even gives you room to spice up your descriptions of food and drink. Ditch the endless stews in favour of food culled from both our own planet and the realms of your own imagination. Maybe tonight the party end up in a tavern run by a pair of fire elementals, where all the food is served flambé, or meet a contact at a high-end goblin place where insects are prepared with exquisite style and seasoning.
COPS AND ROBBERS
The final big bonus cities have may sound like a weird one: where you get cities, you (typically) get law and order.
Now, this may not seem like much of a positive at first glance. Adventurers tend to be impulsive types, after all, not overly given to obeying any law but their own. Most groups – especially the fun ones – break a dozen ordinances before breakfast.
Rather than dampening down the enjoyment, however, the presence of a sizable force of guards can add a wonderful tension to proceedings. Where most traditional, wilderness-based groups would deal with a bunch of cultists by kicking down the door and reducing the temple’s inhabitants to compost, this plan is much riskier in an urban setting. If nothing else, people are liable to ask questions if the heroes drag a pile of blood-spattered gold back through the crowded streets.
This situation raises so many opportunities for decision-making and meaningful choice. Do the party just go about their business as usual, and try to bribe, intimidate, or outrun the guards? Do they take pains to operate in the shadows and stay far away from public battling? Do they decide to try and work with the local guards and hope like hell that the local institutions aren’t all corrupt this time?
If nothing else, sending the heroes on a state-approved redemption mission after their inevitable capture is a wonderful way to throw a twist into your campaign.
A CLEAR VICTORY
So there we are. It’s a conclusive victory for the urban, the settled, and the civilised. I have proved beyond any doubt that campaigns set in cities – or, to be generous, based out of cities – are better than those that spend most of their time tromping around the wilderness, eating mud and going to the loo behind trees.
Or, at least, that’s what I’m arguing for now.
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