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5E What Makes a Good Urban Adventure?

jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
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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TheNoremac42

Explorer
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?
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.

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.

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.

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.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
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/showthread.php?56804-Best-urban-D-amp-D-adventure-new-or-old/page2
 

jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
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?
 

Soul Stigma

First Post
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.


Sent from my iPhone using EN World
 

TheNoremac42

Explorer
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?
 

Quickleaf

Legend
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.
 

aco175

Hero
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.
 

pogre

Hero
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st and 2nd editions have tons of urban adventures. They would be great templates for you. Converting the WFRP adventures to D&D isn't too difficult.
 

Dungeons in an urban adventure: yes or no?
Yes! Sewers, catacombs, ghettos, abandoned districts, ruined buildings, guild headquarters, citadels, prisons (the literal dungeon), hidden-cults' secret temples... cities are rife with dungeon-like environments. One of the cities in my old campaign world was built upon layers and layers of ruins, that formed catacombs beneath it with many 'levels.'
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Get a copy of Blades in the Dark and read it through. It's purpose-built for urban intrigue. I think a lot of the ideas would translate extremely well into D&D -- such as faction status, progress clocks, downtime activities, rep, and crew advancement.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think it really needs to use the city, not just dungeons set in the city. Rival battling power groups are important - think Romeo & Juliet for a good model. You want duels in the street, roof-top assassins, bands of thugs lurking in dark alleys, that kind of thing. The city itself needs a starring role, so design with that in mind.

The first two books of "Curse of the Crimson Throne" do a good job of this, with lots happening in Korvosa itself.

Opposing groups can be:
Noble houses
Criminal gangs
Churches & cults
The City Guard
Rival sorcerers or mage guilds
Merchant guilds
Artisan guilds
Knightly orders
etc
 

Ensure there are nighttime rooftop chases and canal shenanigans! I once set a significant part of a campaign in Marsember in Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms, with is pretty much the Venice of the kingdom. It was a very memorable section of the campaign for all - masked balls to attend to gather information, late-night ambushes out of the fog while the party was traveling under a bridge in a gondola, and of course a big rooftop chase (which tend to be less fatal in canal cities if characters fail a check to jump from building to building - although the chance of drowning is significantly increased!)
 
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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?
The city represents civilization. In order for adventures to occur, the veneer of civilization needs to remain intact unless turning the city into an open war zone is the intended outcome. This means that when going about things, both the PCs and NPC antagonists need to operate at least seemingly within the confines of general law & order. Very high level characters can generally kill everyone in town if they wanted to. There needs to be a reason why civilization cannot be ignored by such a party.

This is why urban adventures work best when the scope of the abilities of both the PCs and the bad guys cannot afford to ignore the impact of the force of law. It is difficult to maintain intrigue scenarios when the party could just decide to cut their way through every problem and not get killed for their trouble. It will be likewise with the bad guys. If the forces of evil are that dominant that they have no fear of consequences from any authority then there wouldn't be much civilization or many normal folk to populate a city to begin with.
 

ZETGIEIST: The Gears of Revolution is an adventure path whose setting is more technologically advanced than your typical D&D campaign -- think mid-1800s -- but the focal point is the city of Flint, which has a diverse mix of traditional druidic magic in the subtropical mountains that surround it, and contentious industry in the smog-choked heart of the city.

The second adventure of the series, The Dying Skyseer, sees the party investigating a murder at the consulate of a hostile government, which ties into crime, conspiracy, and prophecy, all with the backdrop of a culture clash between traditionalism and modernism.

The PCs get both pursue low-level criminals and are embroiled in politics, while their investigation takes them to every part of the city. Flint has character, with memorable locations and memorable NPCs, and it isn't a static place, but a city trying to figure out what it will become.

It's available for both D&D 4e and for Pathfinder. The campaign's also being converted to 5e, but so far only the Player's Guide has been released, which has setting information.

PF version of adventure 2: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product...RPG?filters=0_0_0_0_44303&manufacturers_id=87

A review thereof: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product_reviews_info.php?&reviews_id=63024&products_id=96300

The Patreon page to subscribe and get access to the 5e conversion: https://www.patreon.com/ensider
 


Luz

Explorer
Can anyone point me to some good urban adventures that I might study for inspiration?
The City of Skulls by Carl Sargent is a good urban adventure for high level (9-12).

Frog God Games 'The Blight: Richard Pett's Crooked City comes out later this summer and looks very good. There is also a high level adventure in Quests of Doom called "Sewers of the Underguild" that could be used as the basis for an entire campaign. Its essentially a dungeon crawl in an urban setting, but a very deadly one for sure.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
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.
This is the #1 thing. Players, and it follows - characters, do all sorts of stuff in the wild. A lot of it is simply because they're in an alternate universe where they can try and get away with stuff.

But gods be damned if the watch commander will let that happen on his watch.

What makes city adventures different from dungeon adventures is that PCs have to figure out 1) how to accomplish their goals legally, or 2) do it illegally and not get caught.

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?
Cities have seen high-level parties before. And bad stuff happened. So it's 99% likely that the city has a policy on how to deal with high-level characters - pro- and antagonist. So if your PCs are high-level, they will likely be dealing with the city's countermeasures to them, or other high-level threats that have found a way to evade the city's response.

- the top clergy are all secretly vampires...
- it's not the watch that keeps people in at night, it's the were-tigers...
and since this looks like D&D...
- the watchmen have magical whistles that instantly summon the Brute Squad when high-level characters get out of hand. So bring an armageddon cloak...
 

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