D&D 5E City Adventures...how?


Came up in another thread so I figured if make a dedicated thread. I have hard time running big cities. I'd like to see how some of the more weathered DMs keep track of everything. How detailed do you get? How do you keep the players on track without a straight up rail road?

Also what are the opinions on a city adventure themed starter set? Can you break a city done to a basic learner level? Can you even teach someone how to effectively run a city adventure?

*Note: I run 5e but feel free to include any other edition or game system.

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I've run campaigns based entirely in one city (or within a day's travel--24 miles of it).

I will honestly say they are the most difficult style of game to run. IMO you have a LOT more NPCs to create and breath life into. Adventure hooks by necessity become more numerous and intertwined.

Map detail can be as much or as little as you want, but there must be at least a decent amount to give the city a presence. Here was the map I used for my last city-game:


We made it until about 7th level IIRC.

Feel free to use the map if you want.

One of my current projects is a entire city-based campaign to run from 1st to 20th JUST within the city. Needless to say, it is proving VERY challenging. ;)


I usually run city based adventures, I find them more fun, while having far more options. There's a lot of ways of doing it, a few of the things I do listed below.

City High Level Description: Why is there a city here? Is it on a major land or water trade route (true for most larger cities)? Near valuable resources? How old is the city, how wealthy? How big? Remember that most medieval cities were not that large by today's standards and that it took a lot of land to support a city.

Also think about the racial mix and ethnicities represented. Major port cities are potentially going to have people from around the world. Think a bit about how they might interact with each other.

Maps: I rarely map things out in great detail. I start with a general idea of a city and break it up into districts. Then I write details about that district, wealth level, general types of commerce or governance and so on. There are several online tools for this, one example is medieval-fantasy-city-generator.

Districts: This may just be a sentence or two such as "Lower Ward is the docks district, busy during the day with ships coming in and out. Also has several warehouses for offloading and storing goods. It has a red light district that is booming during trade season with entertainment aplenty for sailors."

Power Organizations and Important Individuals: I have a general idea of who's who in a city and affiliations/enemies. Again this is at a very high level at first. I may note that King Archibald is old and growing senile and his wife Clarissa is really running things or it may be as simple as the city is run by a council of the guilds and I don't even associate any names. If it comes up later I'll use one of my random lists (see below).

The important thing is to not get carried away. I generally have a half dozen groups that I make note of, what their goals are and maybe some important individuals associated to those groups. This helps me set up conflicts and things for the PCs to do

Look and feel: this goes along with the city high level description. Take some time to think about architecture, what buildings would look like based on climate and resources. A place with a lot of wooded land in the far north is going to look a lot different from somewhere with a Mediterranean climate that has access to few trees but plenty of high quality building stone.

Random lists: Since I rarely write down exact details, I rely on random lists for individual names, business names, names for thieve's guilds (there's likely more than 1) and so on.

Once the campaign starts, I work on a starting area and put in a few more details as I plan and go along. It's a lot like campaign world building, you have a high level picture but really focus on a small piece first. In a city campaign I really only think about the district or even the neighborhood the PCs are in and slowly expand out from there.


Well, I'm a RailRoad advocate.

But if you don;t want to go down that Road.......well, then you just must accept the more Winding Path. On a whim the players might go anywhere and do anything, and will quite often ignore any linear adventure path.

In general, you only make the parts of the urban area you need, get used or the players wander too.

I. myself, like lots of detail, so I make lots of detail.....but I also RailRoad, so the second a player tries to go "off adventure" ("The Dragon Flagon tavern is closed as the bouncer slams the door in your face for 10 points of damage.").

For a Classic Easy Trick: find yourself any fantasy city sourcebook. Check out any bookstore or online, you should have no trouble finding one. 3E alone had a ton of them. Then just change the names a bit...and use the city book.


Paizo's Curse of the Crimson Throne was actually written for 3.5E. You can easily convert the entry modules to 5E. There is lots of good stuff in here. There is also a softcover write up of the city that gives a bunch of flavor. Plus tavern game Knivesies!

There are also other cities detailed in the Golarion setting in various products from Paizo. Hope you check these out!


Between game nights I try to make up 10 things to have for the next week. Maybe a couple cool NPCs to introduce or a couple events happening. Maybe a minor holiday or festival for a church. Some may be a soft hook that PCs can play along with and may lead to something larger or just provide some roleplay. I always have a couple random fights ready as well.

This is in addition to planning out something based on where I think the PCs are going or talked about going.

Came up in another thread so I figured if make a dedicated thread. I have hard time running big cities. I'd like to see how some of the more weathered DMs keep track of everything. How detailed do you get? How do you keep the players on track without a straight up rail road?
come up with NPC factions... like 2 street gangs, 2 different members of town guard that want to get head guard job when old one retires (hint give 1 a connection to 1 gang) Have 2 or 3 more NPCs that have nothing to do with that but each have a problem to solve (bonus points... make it that 1 could in theory solve 1 of the others but doesn't know about it) then make some just memorable and unique NPCs... people who could each maybe need some help but in a minor way, but who have names and faces the PCs can put togather...

then let your players run nuts in the town

When it comes to maps, I favour a "tourist map" approach, highlighting features of interest, and not strictly cartographically accurate. Streets can be treated like trees in a forest, you don't need to map every one.

Pet peeve: muggers - they are not going to attack heavily armed bands, or fight to the death!

Overused Trope: Sewers. Whilst some very ancient cities had sewers, most did not. If the do, they are unlikely to feature iron grates, pipes and wheels. Ceramic would be more appropriate.

Research, and use the internet. Most established D&D cities have multiple sources. Grab the stuff you think is most interesting and relevant, cut the waffle. If you are designing from scratch, rip off real world cities of the appropriate period.

Think about the climate. I find many published sources neglect this, unless it is very extreme. It's important for the feel.

Appendix N (a few of my favourites):
Any Terry Pratchett Ankh Morpork story;
C. J. Sansom "Shardlake" stories for Renaissance London;
Lindsey Davis "Falco" stories for 1st Century Rome;
Paul Doherty "Brother Athelstan" for Medieval London.
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Page 2 of your Dungeon Masters's Guide has a disclaimer (in very fine print) that gives three good tactics on how to handle being a Dungeon Master in these situations.

Session Zero = all-important
It all starts with a good session zero, where you discuss the characters and setting. It's alright if you have an idea for the general story and BBEG, but don't bother creating the initial plot hook until you know your PCs and what motivates them.

Now, it is critically important that you discuss what bonds the PCs during the Session Zero. For example they may all be orphans and know each other for a long time from the orphanage. Or they may just be friends from the pub with a love passion for ale.

The first plot hook
Once you know what bonds the PCs you can create a first plot hook which will motivate the whole party. For example some orphans went missing or that evil headmaster that they all hate so much did something bad. Or the ale from their favorite pub was stolen. From there on you can tie that plot hook into the main story, and now the party will voluntarily follow your story in a setting that's essentially a sandbox.

Little details
Then all you need to do is flesh out the important bits of the city. @Oofta wrote a post above that explains it well. Also, don't forget to make a list of 20+ random names (optionally with a basic description) so you can improvise if the PCs suddenly decide to buy flowers and you didn't create a flower shop yet. Note that if you have random names for NPC's, you automatically also have names for shops: E.g. The NPC's name is Gearon, so the shop is Gaeron's Flowers.


I'm planning all I need (important NPC, factions and location for the adventure, a few tavern and shops and other important locations per district, etc.), and for every district of the city I'm doing a random table with event which are trying to capture the look and feel of the district. Nothing too fancy and complicated, just to give life to the locations the players are in.
And of course some improvisation while playing.

How do people interact with cities? I would suggest that most adventurers visit cities, but don't live in them. I live 12 miles from central London, but very rarely go into the city. How the adventurers perceive the city will be very different for urban and rural backgrounds.


When running a city adventure, I think there are actually two strands that you need to keep in mind: there's the adventure and the city.

What I mean by that is that your adventure will involve the characters doing various things, whether that's solving a mystery, tracking down invaders, or whatever. This isn't too much different from any other adventure, and the usual techniques generally apply.

But then there's a load of other stuff that is going on because it's a city, and cities never sleep. The characters will also want to interact with those, so they really do need to be present. Ultimately, though, these are all background to the adventure itself

I think the DM needs to be prepared for both. They also need to be prepared to gently (or sometimes not-so-gently) guide the characters back to the adventure instead of getting sidetracked with everything else that's going on.

I love presenting my players with a big map of a city, and letting explore freely. I'll sprinkle bits of plot in their path, to keep things interesting. But I dislike heavy railroading. Of course, all this freedom also means they can miss stuff.

So, would running the city like a hex crawl work? I mean, as long as you have enough info on the city and locations of course.
I don't think that would really capture the feel of a city. When I travel round London I go from location A to location B without paying much attention to the generic rows of housing in between. And if you are talking about a medieval-ish sized city, you would expect to be able to walk across it in an hour, so you would have very small hexes and an encounter every 100 yards.

I would just say "you travel from [Location] to [Location]. It takes about 20 minutes. On the way you encounter [random encounter]."

As already mentioned, most of those encounters should just be colour, not combat.


Since it is as a practical impossibility to fully document an urban environment of more than few hundred people, urban adventures require an amazing amount of improvisation. The prep work you should do is probably similar to a hexcrawl in a lot of ways just with every hex accessible simultaneously. I rely heavily on an overall district map, and random encounter tables for color and knowledge of my setting to improvise NPCs, buildings, and shops. Players will do a lot of shopping IME. If you are new to this by all means create a 'typical' tavern, alchemist, hedge mage, armorer, weaponsmith, etc. and create a few typical townhome floor plans. You can definitely use real world floor plans as inspiration for buildings.

Cities definitely benefit from having a separate encounter table for night/day. However, don't overload the night encounters with overly lethal things. People live in a city without dying every time they go out at night. Still, there are definitely urban hazards.

Except for buildings you intend to use as dungeons, you don't need a map of everything. You just need to handwave through buildings just like you do streets and start the scene in an appropriate room.

Urban adventures tend to be as much event based as location based. You write up not just encounter locations but encounter events.

You mention railroading. Railroading in an urban environment should definitely be used generously to keep the story going whenever the players have lost the plot. You've got lots of NPCs around that can be used to nudge the PCs in the right direction. Take inspiration from Detective/Police Procedural shows. If the PC's are out of clues, you can always have the villains undertake new actions that will leave more clues. Helpful NPCs can always remember something they forgot earlier or have encounters of their own and seek out the PCs afterwards. Events in the story can be moved to where the PCs are to keep them in the loop.

Keeping focus is a real problem in an urban adventure. As you detail out the city there is a tendency for your city to acquire a lot of red herrings. If you are running a sandboxy sort of campaign where the PCs pick which hooks to bite, this isn't a problem. But if you are running a more adventure path sort of game with a central villain who has a devious plot that must be stopped, this can be a problem since the PCs will encounter all sorts of factions not directly related to the plot. Make sure your adventure path has enough time built in for side quests.
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When it comes to maps, I favour a "tourist map" approach, highlighting features of interest, and not strictly cartographically accurate. Streets can be treated like trees in a forest, you don't need to map every one.
100% agree district level mapping with coloful blocks even work
Pet peeve: muggers - they are not going to attack heavily armed bands, or fight to the death!
oh god i can NOT agree more... muggers may mistake someone for an easy mark if unarmed and unarmored... but anyone picking a fight with armed mercs is beyond dumb
Overused Trope: Sewers. Whilst some very ancient cities had sewers, most did not. If the do, they are unlikely to feature iron grates, pipes and wheels. Ceramic would be more appropriate.
this i disagree with... a few anachronisms work okay... but I prefer just regular caves under the city myself


One note on "dungeons". First, I rarely use them, haunted houses work just as well. However, some cities were built largely underground, such as Petra. Others had massive amounts of tunneling such as Orvieto in Italy. Paris has its catacombs and even London had an underground for the poorest of the poor. One of my major cities is patterned on Naples. It has a massive underground system because the city is built on top of high quality stone used for building. Rather than get stone from faraway quarries, they just dug down.

In any case, have a high level overview but start small and be prepared to improvise is still my best advice. Good luck!

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