Adventuring In The City


A "standard" adventuring party spends much of its time in remote, hostile areas: ruined castles, trackless forests, dungeons deep underground, and similar isolated places. When they encounter pockets of civilization on these missions, the settlements are often no bigger than a small village. True city adventures are rare, and urban areas tend to be relegated to supply depots and places to rest between adventures. This article provides a few tips on running city adventures that are compelling, exciting, and mysterious--but still manageable for the DM.

A "standard" adventuring party spends much of its time in remote, hostile areas: ruined castles, trackless forests, dungeons deep underground, and similar isolated places. When they encounter pockets of civilization on these missions, the settlements are often no bigger than a small village. True city adventures are rare, and urban areas tend to be relegated to supply depots and places to rest between adventures. This article provides a few tips on running city adventures that are compelling, exciting, and mysterious--but still manageable for the DM.

City adventures have several major differences from their dungeon-style counterparts, including:

  • increased freedom
  • multiple plot lines
  • availability of resources
  • emphasized social interaction

Increased freedom
Linear adventures provide manageability for the DM, because the party of heroes has a limited array of options to choose from. Random encounters and wandering monsters are dropped in for variety and increased danger, but most events are directly related to the main story of the adventure. Important NPCs can be fully detailed and relevant areas designed to the last degree, because the DM knows where the characters must go to complete their mission. The city adventure, by contrast, is non-linear: there are hundreds of buildings with thousands of people, each with their own personalities, abilities, and agendas -- and only a few are relevant to the plot of the adventure. PCs can wander any street, enter any shop, speak with any person. This latitude can be a real challenge for the DM who strives to maintain a seamless illusion of reality. Even with prepared city settings that provide a wealth of NPC information, it is impossible to remember and incorporate every detail "on the fly."

Prepared lists can keep events running smoothly, even when you must improvise. These lists help to instantly design the unexpected people and places that the PCs visit. Some suggestions:

  • twenty female and twenty male names
  • ten business names, especially shops and taverns
  • a dozen basic building layouts
  • NPC descriptions and personalities

Note-keeping is very important for continuity and lets you expand hastily-generated places and people into fully-designed parts of the campaign, when time allows. Jot down the major activities the party undertakes, people they contact, and clues they find (or miss). If you use items from your prepared lists, scratch them off so they are not re-used and make a note of the newly created element.

Many players initially find the freedom of a city adventure daunting, feeling adrift on a sea of choices without a clear idea of which direction to paddle. Small plot hooks and clues become lost in the huge panoply of people and places. Parties often wander aimlessly through the city without any sense of purpose. Why? Have the players suddenly become indecisive? Not at all. The limitations of dungeon walls and forbidding terrain channel the PCs to the mission at hand and continually point them in the right direction. Cities lack this restrictive background, leaving characters paralyzed by choices.

To counteract this, DMs need to provide more structural story elements in a city than they must in a dungeon. One clue may not suffice: it might take two or three before the party gives the lead the consideration it deserves. Though not every person or event has relevance to the adventure plot, there should be regular reinforcement that the party is on the right track (or has gone wildly afield!).

Don't be afraid to change the location of physical clues or important NPCs to meet the party where they are. Finding the single key person in a city of 10,000 is a daunting task; be ready to cut the party a break. Such "soft clues" can steer a party back to the mission when they are floundering in a dead-end investigation or working on the wrong problem.

Multiple Plot Lines
Wilderness and dungeon adventures are characterized by wandering monsters and random encounters. These serve to keep things exciting and remind the PCs not everything in the world pertains to their specific mission. In a city, this reinforcement is largely unnecessary--there is obviously a great deal of activity around the party that is unrelated to the adventure. However, multiple plot lines can provide the same feel without further taxing the DM's improvisational skills. In essence, "random" encounters are simply plot lines the PCs haven't explored yet. Espionage and intrigue should feel like a vast web of schemes, conspiracies, and hidden agendas, which is hard to achieve if the party focuses too single-mindedly on one mission.

Most of these secondary plots do not directly affect the party: the PCs become involved because they were in a certain place at a particular time. As players become more accustomed to dividing their attention between multiple plots, however, they can basically pursue two or three adventures simultaneously!

Availability of Resources
One of the hallmarks of a dungeon or wilderness adventure is the scarcity of resources. Items like food, torches, arrows, and magical healing have a finite supply and must be carefully managed if they are to last the entire trip. Not so in a city, where merchant shops stand ready to re-supply the adventurers and magical healers can be found at any number of temples for a small donation. This environment presents a challenge to DMs because many adventure structures present early encounters to drain the PCs' resources, in order to make the later showdown even more difficult. If the adventurers can step right from their inn and confront the bad guy while fully equipped and healed, the fight will go much easier.

One way to handle this problem is to limit the resources available. Not every village will have every item listed in the Player's Handbook. If the party descends on the local fletcher and buys four dozen arrows, they shouldn't expect the same number will be available tomorrow. Similarly, high-end armor such as full plate may not be available for purchase simply because no one in the small town knows how to make it. This principle is doubly true for magical items or divine healing: if the head cleric in town can't cast raise dead, the party must travel elsewhere to revive their fallen comrade.

Be careful using this limitation too often, however. If the adventurers are in a large metropolis or the capitol city, they shouldn't worry if they can find enough torches for their next trip. In major cities, prices may be higher than in the PHB, but every item should be available somewhere.

But if adventurers can buy whatever they need and can heal up at any time, won't encounter levels need to be increased to compensate? Not necessarily. While cities have nearly unlimited access to resources, they have rather strict limitations on when they can be used. Did the heroes think they could wear their spiked half-plate armor and +2 shield to the duchess's ball? Or bring along their 40-lb. adventuring backpack while trying to slip unobtrusively into the congregation of the evil temple? Even cities accustomed to adventurers do not permit fully-armored and equipped bands to wander streets and shops like casual tourists. Some locations will prohibit obvious weapons altogether, and other may scan for magic items as a security measure.

Be sparing with life-and-death encounters in the city, however. PCs are famous for the habit of walking around in full armor and gear, but this practice is justified if monsters jump out from every sewer and thieves lurk everywhere waiting to ambush the unarmored heroes. Most citizens feel relatively safe in a city without wearing armor, and adventurers should enjoy the same privilege. The occasional unexpected fight adds spice, but it is better to have wild chases and bar brawls rather than to-the-death struggles every time the party steps into the street.

Social Interaction/Divided Focus
There is an old role-playing adage: "Split parties die." In other words, concentration of force provides the best security and maximum effectiveness for a group of adventurers. This is especially true at low-levels, and players become accustomed to traveling in a cohesive group, regardless of their surroundings. This practice has real-world benefits as well. When a party is divided, the lone DM must handle the actions of one group while the other players sit and wait for their turn. This slows down play and often becomes uninteresting for the less-involved players.

In a city, however, this group mentality becomes almost comical. Imagine six or eight people visiting shops, interviewing sages, or courting the favor of a noble while standing in a fixed marching order of five-foot squares! With the addition of multiple plot lines and independent character agendas, keeping the party together quickly becomes unfeasible. For urban adventures, the rule is: "Divide and conquer."

Split-focus parties can actually increase excitement rather than deflating it. Alternating between simultaneous scenes--even "cutting" to another scene at a dramatic moment--allows the DM to build the tension like much like a movie. It also gives the player characters involved in the cliffhanger scene a moment to collect their thoughts and decide their next action, which keeps the pace going when the action returns to them. Some DMs will use players whose characters are not in the current scene to take on the personas of NPCs that are interacting with the PCs currently in focus. Be sure to discuss this idea with your playing group before forcing them to take on such roles, however.

Cities can provide one of the most complex, frenzied, roleplaying-intensive backgrounds the party will ever encounter. With a little creativity and a lot of flexibility, your PCs returning from the dungeon will find their adventures have only just begun.

For an excellent City Adventure, check out the Freeport Series (Well our DM did a good job of running it at least).

Other great city resources (City System, all the Waterdeep books and Boxes and the old Lankmar sourcebooks)

What's also nice is playing in a non-human city (Pre-War-of-the-Spiderqueen Ched Nasad being a prime example of an alien city setting).

Nice article.

I like your idea of letting players run NPCs. Cliffhanger scene changes are definitely the way to go when the party splits up.

This is also the problem I have with most fantasy movies. They spend *way* too much time in the wilderness. Fantasy directors: just because it’s set in a mythical world similar to our stereotypical impression of medieval times doesn’t mean you have to spend the whole movie in the forest. Science fiction directors: if you’re making a movie about futuristic soldiers or killer machines and you set it in the desert, on a ghost planet, in the blackness of space confined to a ship, or in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, guess what? You just made a western. And I don’t watch westerns.

See if you can find a copy of the early 80's product from Gamelords Ltd called "City of Haven".
They put a huge amount of effort into the effort.
A huge number of things to do, and lots of random encounter opportunities...
Their "Thieves Guild" series was outstanding also...


One of players creates usually thief or assasin characters, which usually leads to the city adventuring. And even I have noticed some difficulties to improvise whole time.

For the second adventure of my recent campaigne, the PCs had a few little advetures of their own in town.

First the owner of one of the three taverns/inns was the parent of the NPC so they had an option of staying there for no money... only to do chores instead.

One PC (hearafter PC1) was hired by the inn manager to look for a piece of jewelry that has disapeared. With the rumor of a couple of theives guilds members in town you can make the PCs a little more cautious and curious on how things will turn out. But it was ruined by the PC1 (who's suppost to be a SMART character) saying to a suspicious/shady looking guy
"Are you a thief?".
We all laughed for a while at that one.

Another player (PC2) decided he wanted to do chores instead of paying for a room. So his first task was to get water with another NPC, a strong character from a previous campaigne, to go down to the river to collect water (as opposed to getting it from the well for various reasons) which did get exciting for the player when PC2 was told by the NPC to bring his weapons.
In case you were wandering what happened at the river the NPC decided to parry PC2 to better prepare him for the life of an adventurer.

The last charater's (PC3) adventure in the town was pretty uneventful until PC1 decide he wanted to double team the shady NPC, which got PC3 kicked out of town for destroying half a bulding with spells.
But most parties are like this, right?

All of these things were dropped when PC2 witnessed a girl getting kidnapped from a local home. Then leads them to a town where a street gang has been terrorizing the locals.

This Adventure is yet to be completed due to conflicking work scedules and there are no signs of an opening for a couple of weeks.
Why is fate so cruel to GMs?

(sorry about not using any pc names, but thats to protect the imbeciles... I mean innocents)

Lotsa good, political intrigue in a city setting. Are you sure the favor you're doing for that businessman isn't screwing someone else just so he can curry more favor in the Merchant's Guild? The possibilities are endless!

When the characters in one of my current campaigns reach the capital city of the kingdom they're in, they're gonna have a heck of a time if they arrive during the day, what with one of the characters turning into a giant wolf in the daytime and a man at night, but a worse time if they arrive at night.

You see, I've already had them sleep at the inn in the starting town (just north of the starting forest), and what happened was that since they checked in at night, the wolf was a man at the time. When they came back down in the morning, he was a wolf again, and they ended up having to kill about two thirds of the patrons and render the rest unconscious when one of the aforementioned patrons recognized the wolf as the "monster" that lives in the forest to the south, and they had to get out of town pretty quickly before anyone realized what had happened. They could pull this off in a small trading community, but in the capital? They'd be arrested and executed in no time at all.


I'm not a rare flower
Nor am I a shiny treasure box
I'm just your average gamer girl
Who has a bit of power

I GM for the boys
I write up a set of rules
To make sure they keep a reign
On all their spiffy toys

They'd be arrested and executed in no time at all.

Sounds like they'd deserve it, too. Wiping out a barful of people just because one of the party members got an adverse reaction from the locals is what I'd call 'Excessive Use Of Force'....

Not that I object in principle to people playing an evil party, purely as a roleplaying exercise. Just so long as the players are fully aware of the extent of their character's evilness and don't lapse into thinking that the lives of a bunch of peasants 'don't matter'.

A good point. Although one must take into account that the drunkards attacked THEM with an intent to kill first, I still gave them the option to run. I guess their characters' pride must have gotten in the way when the wolf character telepathically asked the group "Run or fight?"

And here they're supposed to be the GOOD GUYS. They're on a mission for the gods, for crying out loud (not that ANYONE who didn't know about the mission befrorehand would ever believe them, which was part of the problem, really). I'm still debating on whether or not I should have the gods punish the party for it later, since the drunkards attacking was mostly me being an evil GM, but on the other hand, they DID have a chance to run. Perhaps I'll have the (I believe it was one or two) character(s) that refused to fight and ran for it rewarded by giving them some small blessing instead.


I'm not a rare flower
Nor am I a shiny treasure box
I'm just your average gamer girl
Who has a bit of power

I GM for the boys
I write up a set of rules
To make sure they keep a reign
On all their spiffy toys