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D&D 5E How do you use cities in your campaigns?

How do you use cities in your campaign?


  • Total voters
    72

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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Isn't your preference here (in re cities) probably at least in part a reflection of your apparent preference for completely-prepped/stocked locations?

I don't really have any preference in regard to "completely-prepped/stocked locations."
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I don't really have any preference in regard to "completely-prepped/stocked locations."

I apologize, then, for misunderstanding your posts elsewhere, where you certainly seemed to prefer location-based adventures to event-based, and to prefer your locations thoroughly (if not completely) stocked and prepped.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I really like the aesthetics of urban play, but I have found D&D to be rather under stocked with rules and mechanics to make it easy. Which is to say I understand your reluctance - getting out of dodge and back to the action is a fine way to play. I tinker with systems and hacks not just because it's a fun hobby, but also to try and relieve some of the issues the D&D can have when played in an urban setting because I like to run urban campaigns as much as I do.

I did a whole system of "Cage Tasks" for my Sigil-based Planescape campaign a couple of years ago that were loosely based on downtime activities and heavily-flavored to fit the setting. The day was split up into 8-hour phases where each PC could perform a task per phase relevant to their interests (so 2 phases per PC per day plus long rest) and it would generate costs, benefits and resources, and complications that would spin up into interesting conflicts and scenarios. It involved quite a bit of exploration since the players and their characters were not familiar with Sigil at all. The tasks would be modified by the specific location in which the PC undertook the action, down to differences between, say, one tavern and another in a different ward of the city.

It was fun, but it was a lot of prep, and it was mainly meant for filler between excursions onto the planes, a way to generate useful resources before heading out of town. I wouldn't use it again unless I run another Sigil-based Planescape game (and I probably won't).
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I apologize, then, for misunderstanding your posts elsewhere, where you certainly seemed to prefer location-based adventures to event-based, and to prefer your locations thoroughly (if not completely) stocked and prepped.

I do prefer location-based adventures because they are easier to run (but harder to prep) and can offer more freedom to the players than a plot-based game wherein the expectation is the characters must stay on the plot. But I have no particular preference as to how another DM preps. They can improvise the whole thing for all I care.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I do prefer location-based adventures because they are easier to run (but harder to prep) and can offer more freedom to the players than a plot-based game wherein the expectation is the characters must stay on the plot. But I have no particular preference as to how another DM preps. They can improvise the whole thing for all I care.

Ah. I was thinking about your preferences for your own DMing. Mine, you should not be surprised to read, tilt more toward events/goals than locations, though I'll prep up a location in the service of that. I find that allowing the characters to choose a goal and pursue it works pretty well.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Ah. I was thinking about your preferences for your own DMing. Mine, you should not be surprised to read, tilt more toward events/goals than locations, though I'll prep up a location in the service of that. I find that allowing the characters to choose a goal and pursue it works pretty well.

I do prefer to have my location-based adventures fully-prepped before play, but what "fully-prepped" means is going to vary from adventure to adventure. I don't have a single way of doing things like some DMs do. I ruthlessly interrogate the vision I have relative to the group's preferences and decide what is needed and what isn't before putting pen to paper. Look at any of my adventures and you'll see significant differences depending on what I'm going for.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I did a whole system of "Cage Tasks" for my Sigil-based Planescape campaign a couple of years ago that were loosely based on downtime activities and heavily-flavored to fit the setting. The day was split up into 8-hour phases where each PC could perform a task per phase relevant to their interests (so 2 phases per PC per day plus long rest) and it would generate costs, benefits and resources, and complications that would spin up into interesting conflicts and scenarios. It involved quite a bit of exploration since the players and their characters were not familiar with Sigil at all. The tasks would be modified by the specific location in which the PC undertook the action, down to differences between, say, one tavern and another in a different ward of the city.

It was fun, but it was a lot of prep, and it was mainly meant for filler between excursions onto the planes, a way to generate useful resources before heading out of town. I wouldn't use it again unless I run another Sigil-based Planescape game (and I probably won't).
That seems broadly similar to what I do. I've added some layers and crunch to gather intel, favors, rumours and the like with similar levels of differentiation. Not quite as nuanced as you, but I'm not trying prep the whole sandbox either. The downtime stuff segues into what I call a montage level, which is half roleplayed and half multiple skill test to run smaller cons, heists, events or infiltration. That's the part that borrows heavily from BitD including a mechanism for flashbacks. The top level is full encounter based play. The three levels serve to streamline the smaller jobs and keep attention focused on major goals. Coupled with the reputation system where each PC has their own contacts and maybe hirelings I find it does a pretty good job investing the players in the whole endeavor.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
I've used them a lot though probably less than others in my gaming circle. Urban adventures are extremely popular here in Glasgow.

It could be argued that, because D&D is close to the Wild West genre, that one ought to draw a big distinction between Civilisation 'back East' and Frontier. The former should be safe and the latter dangerous (though it creates hardy pioneers adventurers.) But I haven't really done this.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
It could be argued that, because D&D is close to the Wild West genre, that one ought to draw a big distinction between Civilisation 'back East' and Frontier. The former should be safe and the latter dangerous (though it creates hardy pioneers adventurers.) But I haven't really done this.

There's also a case to be made that the cities were just as dangerous, just in different ways. I try to make the dangers in a city different from the ones in the wilderness.
 

THEMNGMNT

Adventurer
In theory, urban adventures are my favorite. I just love fantasy cities. In practice, I have yet to run a city-based campaign. Part of the reason is that there's not a published urban campaign that perfectly fits my tastes (although The Banewarrens comes close) so it requires more upfront work than I like. (Typically, I start with a published adventure, use the hook and the maps, and change everything else.) One day!
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I really like Dragon Heist, but it's got a lot of holes in it. Thankfully I never use published material as-is so that's not an issue for me. There's a ton of maps and extra material available for it that patches things up too, and if you have a bunch of that stuff it starts to feel very well prepped and fully realized.
 

THEMNGMNT

Adventurer
I've added some layers and crunch to gather intel, favors, rumours and the like with similar levels of differentiation. The downtime stuff segues into what I call a montage level, which is half roleplayed and half multiple skill test to run smaller cons, heists, events or infiltration. That's the part that borrows heavily from BitD including a mechanism for flashbacks. The top level is full encounter based play. The three levels serve to streamline the smaller jobs and keep attention focused on major goals. Coupled with the reputation system where each PC has their own contacts and maybe hirelings I find it does a pretty good job investing the players in the whole endeavor.
That sounds great. I'd love to see that in action or check out your house rules.

Teos Abadia published a series of articles about downtime on alphastream dot org that go deeper into how to make downtime an exciting part of the story and segue seamlessly in and out of adventures. It's worth checking out for any campaign, but especially for one that's city-based.
 

THEMNGMNT

Adventurer
I really like Dragon Heist, but it's got a lot of holes in it. Thankfully I never use published material as-is so that's not an issue for me. There's a ton of maps and extra material available for it that patches things up too, and if you have a bunch of that stuff it starts to feel very well prepped and fully realized.
I have mixed feelings about Dragon Heist. I had high hopes for it...probably too high. I think it's a missed opportunity. The Alexandrian's remix is probably what I'd use if I ran the adventure. That said, I agree it's got a lot of good stuff to steal.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
The way DH is set up is very similar to way I plan campaigns anyway (without the holes though, I would like to think) so adapting and adding to it felt pretty easy and natural to me. There's a bundle on DMsG that adds some excellent flavor and depth. I'm currently prepping DH for an extended run with a lot of additional waterdeep material thrown in and probably an over-all grey hands feel to things. Rather than rolling from there to DotMM I'm going to keep the intrigue and faction thing rolling but broaden the scope and stakes.

I'm still tinkering with the subsystems and scope for my rules. I've used a couple of variants and every time it hits the table I add or take away a few things. Getting the balance right on reputation has proved tough - I want it to matter but not to add to much book keeping. I'm close but not quite there. My goal is eventually to write it up and share it, but it's too ragged around the edges right now.

Aquisitions Inc is also a great place to look for cool ways to tie downtime more closely to the narrative. Just strip off the satire and it's a pretty robust system.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I don't really find urban campaigns much more work than any other type of campaign because I don't over prep. So for example, I have a city map that's simply what districts are where. As the campaign progresses I add notes of tavern, business and any other details. But those details are just filled in like any other visit - based on either an important plot point or just pulled from a random list.

Similar to any other campaign, I start out with a neighborhood who's-who with a bit of detail. The leaders of the city may well be left vague ("The council") or a quick description. Do you know much about your city's mayor? Does it really matter if you only have 2-3 tavern types, and how often do you even need to map out any specific business?

But I also rely a lot on theater of the mind when it comes to describing locales, only pulling out the grid (and maps) when it matters. Names, descriptions for NPCs and business come from random lists taking into consideration the district and purpose of a location.

I don't use reputation "points" or anything like that, I've personally just never found a need. If I did, I wouldn't want the players to know about it, I don't want to mix story and the metagame. I can see why that may not work for some people who don't want to worry about making judgement calls.

So it's really not that much different than if the group simply have a home base in the wilderness. I'd still be tracking relationships with different individuals, coming up with unique personalities and so on.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
To me urban adventures can certainly be a big part of the game - after polishing off the Lord of the Rings in middle school, the next fantasy novel I read was Gary Gygax's Saga of Old City - the first Gord the Rogue novel. If those (or the Fritz Lieber novels Gygax borrowed from) don't make you want to play an urban campaign, well, urban campaigning in D&D probably just isn't for you.

At the same time, I don't think I've ever ran an exclusively or even heavily urban campaign in D&D. I started off my current Midgard campaign in Zobeck, with the thought that we might be spending the majority of the campaign there... only to find our party all but run out of town on a rail by Session 4. Since then they've been on the road, mostly in the countryside, castles and small villages. Maybe next campaign...
 

Arilyn

Hero
I find it easier to adjust on the fly, and improvise with city locations. So, I can have a successful session with no prep at all and totally run off player choices. Throwing in a strange shop or odd location in the market can be enough to get all our creative juices flowing.
 

zztong

Explorer
In so much as a city, village, or frontier civilization can be a setting for adventure, my guess is I use them about 25% of the time. I prefer my games be tales of humanity, generally humanity expanding into uncivilized areas or exploration. So the players get a decent dose of wilderness, but also of the frontier.

I'm not looking to run a game full of PCs undertaking mundane events. I'd rather just assume those were happening, when necessary, and perhaps use a mundane event as an introduction to a plot.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Those of you who say you find city-based adventures easy to prep have earned my undying jealousy. :)

Personally, I don't run many city-based adventures because in general I find them an absolute [female dog] to prep, to run, and to keep straight. In a typical dungeon or wilderness there's either only so many places you can go (dungeon) or lots of empty space with encounters scattered throughout (wilderness); and in either case the possible encounters - even including wandering monsters - are more or less narrowly defined.

But in a city there's almost no empty space, there's gobs and gobs and gobs of places for the PCs to potentially go, and just about no limit on the number or type* of encounters they might hit. I have to in my mind have an idea as to what might happen where and when, which in dungeon or wilderness is easy but in a city I can't keep all that straight while trying to run a game three drinks in, thus for a city adventure I have to prep everything to the nines; life's too short. :)

* - well, except monsters, but even they can show up in cities sometimes.

Never mind that experience shows there's more than a little truth to our standing joke around here: "No adventuring party is capable of entering-inhabiting-leaving any city, town, village or hamlet without causing mayhem, destruction and injury in so doing".
 

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