5E What Makes a Good Urban Adventure?
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  1. #1

    What Makes a Good Urban Adventure?

    I know that what my players really want when we re-start our game is an urban adventure. So I'd like to give it to them, but I'm not really sure where to start. I'd like to get people's thoughts on what makes a successful urban adventure.

    How to make best use of the urban atmosphere?

    What are the special challenges of an urban adventure?

    How does the party's level affect the adventure? The higher level the party, the fewer NPCs in town who should pose a realistic challenge for them.

    Dungeons in an urban adventure: yes or no?

    Can anyone point me to some good urban adventures that I might study for inspiration?
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    Thieves' guild shenanigans, murder mysteries, quelling/joining riots, court intrigue. Low level adventurers could simply be the city guard putting bounties on known gangs. Maybe there's a monster in the sewer? Maybe a wealthy inheritor needs someone to clear out his newly acquired haunted house? There's always packages that need to be delivered, and what if someone wants (and maybe succeeds) to intercept it?

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    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    I know that what my players really want when we re-start our game is an urban adventure. So I'd like to give it to them, but I'm not really sure where to start. I'd like to get people's thoughts on what makes a successful urban adventure.
    Well, I would say that the one thing you absolutely need is a city. A town, in a pinch.

    How to make best use of the urban atmosphere?
    Intrigue. Politics. And walls. Most cities have walls.

    And walls mean .... secrets ....

    What are the special challenges of an urban adventure?
    Most cities are dynamic, moreso than a dungeon (where we don't know, or care, why the monster is just hanging out in the room, waiting to get killed). It is a challenge to keep track of the changes that are occurring while people are doing something else.

    How does the party's level affect the adventure? The higher level the party, the fewer NPCs in town who should pose a realistic challenge for them.
    Disagree. Cities attract other high level people, because that's where the stuff is. Like off-Broadway plays.

    Dungeons in an urban adventure: yes or no?
    YES. Whether it's sewers, or dungeons, or what have you ... definitely a big yes.

    Can anyone point me to some good urban adventures that I might study for inspiration?
    City State of the Invincible Overlord was the first, if not the best.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    I know that what my players really want when we re-start our game is an urban adventure. So I'd like to give it to them, but I'm not really sure where to start. I'd like to get people's thoughts on what makes a successful urban adventure.

    How to make best use of the urban atmosphere?
    It really depends on what the character of the city is. I think a good, strong theme is necessary to make an urban environment stand out. Sharn in Eberron or Sigil in Planescape are good examples. They're both exotic, but also familiar.

    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    What are the special challenges of an urban adventure?
    In my view, pacing. The same can be said of every adventure, but in particular, urban adventures can suffer from a sudden urge to run mundane errands or to interview NPCs endlessly trying to find the dramatic conflict. Some people have fun with this, but I hate it. The second someone goes shopping in a game in which I'm playing, I check out mentally if not physically.

    So, I think keeping that sort of mundane stuff short and to the point is ideal in order to keep the focus on the adventure. In my current campaign, there aren't adventures in the cities, but they are part of the overall campaign, so the PCs visit them periodically. I've taken to making any city visit a "phase" of play wherein the players can choose between four basic options for town tasks: Carouse, Gather Information, Get Services, Supply, and Special. Each of those tasks effectively takes a full day and any given task requires at least one PC to perform. Each task has several location-based opens that offer interesting trade-offs and local flavor so there are some meaningful choices to be had. "Special" tends to be a point of interest in the city or town that grants a boon if you visit it, under certain circumstances. This setup allows us to do the "town scenes" very quickly and is also something of a mini-game in and of itself.

    Part of the reason it works well is because my campaigns run on timers. So you're already trying to get your quests done before time's up. That means limiting how much time you muck about town.

    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    How does the party's level affect the adventure? The higher level the party, the fewer NPCs in town who should pose a realistic challenge for them.
    It depends. A city like Sigil has angels and fiends in it, so that's no issue. If it's just a fairly mundane city in a fantasy world, you might just set the campaign parameters to run from 1st to 10th-level or something like that. That's still going to be months of play, depending on how much you play and how you award XP.

    Oftentimes, it's not individual monsters or NPCs that are the real threat - its entire organizations which can wield power better than the PCs can wield a sword or spell.

    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    Dungeons in an urban adventure: yes or no?
    Sure. Sewers and necropolises come to mind. Any reasonably sized building is also effectively a dungeon. And you can always have the city built on the ruins of cities of previous ages.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    How to make best use of the urban atmosphere?
    PC-NPC Connections. The PCs don't live on an island. They have background - draw on those and give them a chance to use their background features. Create ally NPCs that are actually helpful and interesting (not just an excuse to be rescued, give quests, or betray the PCs). Include a bit of tension/friction with the dilemmas you set up; there's a whole gamut of conflict between "friendly ally" and "open hostility and combat."

    Dynamic NPC Plans. There are a lot of power-brokers in a city, and they aren't just going to be sitting still while the PCs mess things up. If any adventure gives the DM an excuse to poison the PCs' cups, drag their names through the mud, and send assassins to their inn rooms, it's an urban adventure.

    Deadlines & Deadly Enemies. In an urban adventure, the PCs often have easy access to inns/lodging where they can long rest. Either you can create deadlines that put pressure on their time, or you can make fewer but much deadlier challenges. A deadline doesn't have to be "You have 3 days until the killer strikes again!" A good example of a softer deadline is "yeah, we can rest, but by that time the thieves' guild will have either cleared out to a new lair OR have fortified their lair with even greater traps/defenses."

    What are the special challenges of an urban adventure?
    The Law. You need to figure out what the law has to say about adventurers, weapon-possession and use, spellcasting in public, killing/apprehending without a warrant, the need for writs to adventure in certain areas of the city, and to what extent the PCs can expect support (or hindrance) from the city guard.

    DMing Multiple NPCs. It's going to happen in an urban adventure. To be prepared, you want a list of names (organized however is suitable for your setting) & a list of roleplaying traits you can quickly access and check off. In actual play, you want to practice angling your body/head at different 45-degree angles to represent two different NPCs (plus voices/accents if you do that). Also make sure to keep track of the NPCs you create...because your players sure as heck won't remember.

    How does the party's level affect the adventure? The higher level the party, the fewer NPCs in town who should pose a realistic challenge for them.
    A CR 1/8 noble could very well be a challenge to a 12th level party. The PCs know she is bad to the bone, but don't want to run the risk of breaking the law until they get hard evidence of her alliance with the evil Dustwall orcs. She might have blackmail material on them, so that they don't dare risk moving directly against her until they destroy the evidence she has. Especially with urban adventures, it's helpful not to think in terms of the "encounter accounting" that's more common in dungeon adventures.

    Dungeons in an urban adventure: yes or no?
    Abso-frickin-lutely! I've run my fair share of thieves' guilds and wererat warrens beneath the streets. A great example was Harbinger House for the Planescape setting, a multi-dimensional asylum.

    Can anyone point me to some good urban adventures that I might study for inspiration?
    I'm afraid besides The Assassin's Knot and Harbinger House, I haven't run any explicitly urban published adventures. You might find some suggestions in an old thread: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...w-or-old/page2

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by TheNoremac42 View Post
    Thieves' guild shenanigans, murder mysteries, quelling/joining riots, court intrigue. Low level adventurers could simply be the city guard putting bounties on known gangs. Maybe there's a monster in the sewer? Maybe a wealthy inheritor needs someone to clear out his newly acquired haunted house? There's always packages that need to be delivered, and what if someone wants (and maybe succeeds) to intercept it?
    Good suggestions! I note, though, that most of those are for low-level parties. Any ideas what you would have a high-level party do in a city?

  7. #7
    Urban adventures, and just time spent in cities in the first place, mean bringing the locale to life. In a market district there are all sorts of sounds besides citizens talking and moving about (hammering on an anvil, vendors shouting out their wares, the occasional dog barking) as well as sights (children running between clusters of people, some picking pockets even, guards escorting a suspect to the prisons, etc.) and of course smells (fresh baked bread, cooking meats, refuse to balance it, lol, and so on).

    Make the locale real and the opportunities arise naturally (if you're comfortable with improv) or the flavor sets up your adventure (if you preplan).

    As for plots: they happen on all levels. There are the intrigues of court (think Kings' Landing), but there are also tons of opportunities across the board. One merchant is boiling because a rival merchant sells similar items for much less than is reasonable - how is that possible? Perhaps the cheaper merchant is a fence for the local thieves' guild!

    As someone else said - deliveries: perhaps a merchant has sold a one-of-a-kind item to a wealthy noble but must now deliver it, and he fears what may happen should he "lose" it along the way.

    Perhaps the city is home to a brilliant tinkerer, but his latest contraption is loose and out of control in the streets.

    At any rate, these are just market district suggestions and there are many other areas of a city to explore. Let your imagination run and pull a little from the news in real world cities, giving it a fantasy spin.


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    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    Good suggestions! I note, though, that most of those are for low-level parties. Any ideas what you would have a high-level party do in a city?
    Perhaps a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the court Arch-mage to take the throne for himself? Maybe the ruler of the city is actually a vampire or lich in disguise and you must liberate the townsfolk that are surprisingly okay with this before they throw you out for being prejudiced against their liege's lifestyle/condition?
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    Quote Originally Posted by jayoungr View Post
    Good suggestions! I note, though, that most of those are for low-level parties. Any ideas what you would have a high-level party do in a city?
    Instate the party rogue (or NPC) as the new guildmaster of the Thieves' Guild, which faces hostile takeover by yugoloths.

    Find out who the King-slayer is, track him/her/it down with city on lockdown, bring to justice before a battle for the throne ensues.

    Find and disrupt the Far Realms-ian magic symbols causing the city to descend into chaos prior to a full-scale invasion by aberrations through a baroness's mirror.

    A warmongering duke threatens to galvanize the people's hate, prejudice, poverty, and dissatisfaction to invade a neighboring city-state unless the PCs find a way to stop his plans.

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    Always have good NPCs to meet and interact with the PCs. Goods innkeepers, messengers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers. All of these people in a sense work for the PCs to get money out of them. The taxi at the gate will show them to a good inn, where he gets a tip from the innkeeper to bring adventurers to. The messengers bring letters to the PCs from nobles looking to meet for a diner party. The shopkeeper directs them to a bank/jeweler where they can cash in gems. Maybe a special armorer or weaponsmith can make armor that never rusts or stays sharp.
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