City tips

7 City Tips From Your Fellow Subscribers

1. Pick A Compelling Name For Your City
From: Casey D
I try to carefully choose the city name so that the name itself hints at important aspects of the city's people or history. For example, if you want to develop a city of quick-tempered dwarves, "Rage" is a good city name. But, if that's too obvious for you, look at different languages. I like using German for dwarves, so a couple options jump out: "Zorn" or "Taumel". Perhaps the dwarves from Zorn war with the dwarves from Taumel because both the peoples are too hot headed to sit down and talk?
I really know I've created good city names when the name fits the people so well that in later adventures, when the PCs are in a tavern across the land and they meet an angry dwarf, they all roll their eyes and mutter "he MUST be from Zorn!"
[Johnn: that's a great tip because a good city name immediately catches your players' interests like a good plot hook will. It can often solve the problem of motivating the PCs to stop at a city for the urban adventure you have planned because they'll be intrigued by the name and want to check the place out for themselves.
I think this goes back to the naming tips we discussed in Issues #72 & #73 where a good name can aid your campaign in many ways, such as:
    * Creating suspense & tension ("City of Black Death")
    * Creating mystery ("Forbidden City")
    * Creating a sense of wonder ("Xanadu")
If you're restricted with naming cities (such as you're playing in modern Earth or using the Middle Earth world) then create compelling nicknames, "street" names, or slang names for them. "The Big Apple" and "The Windy City" are two modern examples, though they are no longer as interesting to players because of their common use.]
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2. Knowing The Power Structure Can Help You Run The Background
From: Garry S
The city is one place you can't "work out the details later". The first thing that needs to be done is a quick Who's Who and an hierarchy of the city's power structure. Now, your PCs might never meet these people, depending on the social level at which they play, but the names of the Mayor (or equivalent), government council, judges, and important employees you should know. Every cop or guardsman does not need detailing.
Next, what persons and or groups are there with influence? In a modern campaign that might be the trucker's union, in a fantasy setting the carter's guild. A thieves' guild most certainly in the fantasy setting, and in a large city, several might exist as rivals.
Rich people can also influence the government. And don't forget action groups such as the SPCA or Greenpeace. Determine who they are. Religions: do they have a place in the government? What is that place? How many are there and what are their major beliefs?
Once you have these things determined make notes as to the relationships between the groups. Are they allies, hostile, indifferent? Does the Lamplighters Guild despise the Streetsweeper's Guild to the point of violent action? Is the rich guy in town in bed with the thieves guild or the mafia?
Here is a form for creating a "group", be it a hidden cult or the Loyal Guild of Fishmongers. I have used this for everything from a street gang to a multi-planet corporation. All categories do not have to be filled out and extra can be added.
Group Name:
Created by:
Number of Members:
Nature of Members:
Game Role:
World Role:
Relative Influence:
Public or Secret?:
Publicly Stated Goal:
Real Goal (if different):
Relative Wealth:
Group Advantages:
Special Abilities:
Group Disadvantages:
Special Disadvantages:
Who belongs:
Who doesn't belong:
Those who favor them:
Those opposed to them:
Area of Operation:
Headquarters Location:
Public Face:
Notable Members:
History of the Organization:
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3. Create Compelling Locations
From: Jessica H
Make the PCs feel like they're in a real city, with everything that that implies. If you're in a fantasy setting, it's easy to give the market street atmosphere, but what about letting the players move beyond that?
In a contemporary setting, it's easy to have every scene be set at a landmark. Think about the spheres of commerce, medicine, government, sanitation, social services (the local orphanage, where do elderly people go, the homeless, etc.), where the food comes from and goes to, finance, police, fire department (is there even one?), news/media, volunteer and social organizations, the arts...
The worst thing you can do in a city campaign is make your city a generic one. If you even only have interesting locations or local quirks about a few of those topics, I guarantee your players will not only remember them, but you might even get to use them as an adventure hook.
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4. Prepare Lots of NPCs
From: Jessica H
When you're in a city, the characters can go anywhere and talk to anyone, and as the GM you give up a lot of control over their environment. In the woods or a small town, it's reasonable that they'll only run into the people they should. In a city, you should expect them to go talk to NPCs you haven't created yet. Creating a few stock characters with quirks and small-scale goals ("look important in front of the strangers", "keep my job at all costs", etc.) will help you when they leave the beaten path.
[Johnn: a friend and awesome GM, David M, has a great system for NPCs. He creates archetype NPCs for the different categories of people in his campaign, then he pulls out their character sheets when needed and individualizes them on the spot (i.e. adding personality, purpose, quirks, and so on).
With a dozen NPC archetypes and a random personality chart, you have access to hundreds of NPCs at any time. The key, which I learned from David, is to:
   1. Create archetypes that aren't so generic that they're useless (i.e. a "human" archetype)
2. Create archetypes that aren't too specific and can rarely be used.
Some examples of basic NPC archetypes that you can roll up, equip, and add some specific details for instant playability are:
    * Politician
    * Clerk
    * Priest or holy man
    * Ambassador or visiting dignitary
    * Policeman or guard
    * Soldier
    * Merchant
Another key is to give each archetype a local flavour, according to the city in which they live. For example, guards from one city might be equipped with fine swords, full chain armour, and well-maintained crossbows, while guards from another place might only be given grubby leather jerkins and a club.
Jessica mentioned giving NPCs small-scale goals. Here are several examples that she came up with to help you create your city NPCs:
    * Merchants:
          o Make money
          o Protect my reputation
          o Gain social standing (i.e. maybe make a bid for nobility)
          o Provide for my family
          o Frustrated and wishing I was a adventurer/artisan/etc. 
  • Minor nobles (young): o Make a good marriage o Impress the peasants/merchants with my wealth and standing o Make some money so I can be rich as well as noble o Gain political standing o Avoid my army service o Pressure the major nobles/king for a grant of land
  • Minor nobles (old): o Provide financially for my children o Protect myself from my old enemies at court o Marry my children to nobles more important than I am o Avoid becoming the scapegoat for something that goes wrong o Pass my wisdom on to the idealistic young nobles
  • Administrator/Clerk: o Impress the hoi polloi with how important my job is o Keep my job o Find a way to make a little extra on the side o Work hard so that I can read in the archives any chance I get o Marry into the merchant classes o Dig up dirt on my enemies, or just inconvenience them
  • Labourer: o Get a better job o Feed my family at all costs o Avoid attracting the attention of “important people” o Try to attract the patronage of “important people”
  • Mother with kids/homemaker: o Keep my children safe o Find good marriages for the children o Impress the other nearby families o Keep a respectable front up for all the gossips o Know everything that’s going on in the community o Keep my husband from drinking/leaving me/gambling o Find a way to bring more money into the house]
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5. Actions Have Consequences
From: Jessica
If you're running a long-term game in the same place, especially in a city, the things the PCs do should affect the pace of the city. If they've committed a crime they should hear about it from criers/on the radio. If they try to overthrow the local powers that be, they should make enemies or friends appropriately. People of the same social circles in a city tend to know each other, and so the PCs can't really act in a vacuum the way they might when traveling from small town to small town.
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6. Compare Running A City Story With A Wilderness Or Dungeon
From: Aki H
In the wilderness encounters are few and far apart, but in cities they happen all the time - so often that player characters have no chance to participate in everything. Unless they are street wise, they should have a lot of difficulty even figuring out what is going on - the "country boy in New York" effect. It is easy to get cheated, it is easy to get lost, it is easy to get into trouble.
In dungeons, you generally don't have to worry about innocent bystanders. If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't move, shoot it anyway. The kick in the door mentality is unlikely to prove very fruitful in an urban environment.
Think of how city adventures are described in books. What I see mostly is encounters [like wilderness and dungeon adventures]. Staging those is a lot easier than actually running an entire city. So, prepare the encounters you plan to run, and, to be on the safe side, a couple of movable environments, such as:
    * An inn to sleep or wine & dine in
    * A busy street rife with trade opportunities and pickpockets
    * An alley suitable for a secret rendezvous or an ambush
    * A crossroads for a road accident or a robbery or a haughty noble demanding that not only he and his retinue go first, but that lesser beings (such as the PCs) show sufficient respect
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7. Gaming Resource Suggestion: Flying Buffalo City Books
From: Matt I have found the City Book series from Flying Buffalo filled with descriptions on all sorts of city establishments, along with maps, quests, and NPC personalities. The books are generic and can be used in any game system.
I have followed their example and created my own establishments, and when the characters enter a town I just flip through my notebook and pick out what best fits in the town or city.
Examples include:
    * Thieves, mage merchant guilds
    * Stores (jewellery, general, weapon, armor, etc.)
    * Inns
    * Taverns
    * Warehouses on the docks.
Once an establishment is placed in a certain city, the page is moved to where I keep the information for that city. I sometimes re-use places like inns, but change the name and the people in it.
[Johnn: here's the link to Flying Buffalo's City Books: ]

15 Tips For Making Cities In Your Games Come To Life

A guest article by Emmet Harris

Running a city campaign requires a certain sort of skill and attention to the players’ desires. I am sure someone will write an essay on just those issues (I mention them briefly as my last point at 15, below), but I thought the best thing I could contribute in my three quarters of an hour was a collection of “production notes” – a series of tips about the particular issues that will face a GM as he tries to work out how he is going to present a city and make it engaging to his audience.

Whether your PC group is just passing through, or you are running an ongoing adventure in that city, you will need:

  • A setting
  • NPCs
  • A web of intrigue
  • A story all in one place

The following tips may be useful for a GM looking for artistic direction in portraying their cities.

1. Questions For Yourself
Do you have a story to tell for the city? Can you bring part of that city's character out through that story? Can you give that city's character a visual manifestation and use that vision to give the city life?
Your choice for what you want your audience to see will be based on your answers. World of Darkness gamers will be familiar with admonitions to portray their cities a certain way. Emphasising rust, abandoned buildings, bullet-holes or flickering street-lamps are just a tiny slice of the possible examples, and portray only one mood. Once you have decided on your themes and moods, you will know better what you want your PCs to see.
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2. 1st Impressions Count
Be bold. Players will forgive an excess of energy and colour and prefer it by far to a "convincing" or realistic, but otherwise grey, city.
So you think that the city is pretty boring on a Monday afternoon? Who cares? Make it as busy as a Friday or Saturday night in Summer! So what, if in your opinion, only 5% of a city actually has anything interesting to show the PCs? Show them that 5%!
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3. "Here We Are Now, Entertain Us..." - Nirvana
Let's face it, entertaining your troupe with descriptions is about beating your own limitations at improvisation. If you're brilliant at improvising a description of a colourful, entertaining scene, then you've got a lot of the hardest work in the bag... For the rest of us, the following tips might help:
Entertainers are everywhere, even in the hubs of cities, and are certainly more interesting to look at than the beggars. Use this street-side action and all the sensory stimulation that goes with it - especially smells.
Beware of imagining all street-side performers as being of one sort. This is an easy trap for the creatively stretched GM who gets used to seeing performers only on the streets of her own city, or who thinks of performers in terms of her favorite novel's setting. This can lead to describing similar acts again and again. One remedy - try checking out one of Cirque du Soleil's acts, or any of their promotional materials, and go nuts trying to come up with a moving description of the poetry that is their movement.
To add to the atmosphere of your scenes, try to get some music appropriate for dance-halls, love-pits, street performers, circus acts, etc. (Cirque du Soleil is brilliant for this last sort.)
Concentrate on how you describe those trying to entertain the PCs. See that grinning, suited Mandolin player in the doorway who has hair that might be blonde, almost matted to dreads through lack of washing? See his dirty, smiling face? He's charming, but isn't there something a little.... thin about him with his large eyes? Perhaps the jacket looks a little less than immaculate?
If you are wandering through an area and you want to describe a scene, don't be vague. Get particular. Use "To your left you see ...., and to your right.....", etc.
By being specific, (yet economical) in your descriptions, you will make your scenes unique. Another benefit is that, as well as doing all the descriptive work you would always put into your tableaus, you'll never have to worry about your players silently thinking "another bloody tumbler!"
As a final tip on describing city street-side scenes, I would suggest having at least 4 street-side tableaus ready to describe on paper. And since this Tips column is historically hot on index cards, then try that if you like.
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4. Splendour Always Makes An Impression
Go Hollywood! Go turn of the (last) century Paris! Go Las Vegas! Big, stupid ;-) buildings like one in the shape of an elephant, or a faux windmill with oversized blades with lights on them (both from Moulin Rouge) can portray a real impression of excess, or at least splendour.
Take, for example, the Phoenix-like temple to Lathander in the AD&D Shadowdale Boxed Set. Now that's impressive - at least, if you describe it right. :-). One idea to imitate - think Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge, and you're on one right track with this tip.
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5. Skipping Time - One Way To Avoid Street After Street
"A short while later, when you go out for entertainment, you find you've drifted amongst a district with many hung oil lamps and torches, and from all the brightly lit dance halls, you hear what sounds like Spanish guitar, and raucous partying and some very disciplined dancing. The air is jasmine scented here in Arabel's "Purple District", where (ahem), people wear their purple sashes that would say they were looking for a mate in anything but the traditional bandolier fashion!"
Describing things this way might be more entertaining than playing through the locating of yet another inn, getting yet another room, etc.
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6. Not Skipping Time... But Making It Memorable!
If you're bound and determined to drag your poor players through another inn and bar scene, try to go to the trouble of pre-generating one... complete with barkeep. Irony Games' web-site does a decent job. [] But, you may need to spruce up the interior decor a tad, and the barkeep's persona will doubtless require some pre-generation and some improvisation. (Index cards optional ;)
Try to make at least one of the entertainers or bar-staff memorable. Nothing's worse than running into "Fat Jolly Jock the Yorkshire Barmen No. 5", or "human-looking but otherwise just like the Green Karaoke bar owner from Angel No. 7", or "Woody the barman No. 3".
One of each (per game-master!) is not only forgivable, but can be a real lark. Tribute is cool. Especially if you as a referee have acting skills that really run to hamming it up and you enjoy playing those caricatures - enthusiasm is contagious, use your energy ;). Just enjoy it in moderation.
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7. Resist Habits
Don't let 'em do the "inn thing" in the same order each time. Break things up.
For example:
    * Don't have every bar's stables tended by a boy. Throw in an old bloke who chases off other competitors with a stick.
  • Don’t always have an obvious bouncer, unless the PCs ask….
  • Tell the PCs they have to wait outside for a few minutes before they get in (Noble coming out, etc.). In fact, try throwing in an encounter on the verge/porch/outside about one in five times. eg. Barman begging wealthy patron to come back in, despite the insult offered by another patron.
Basically, do anything to break up the "horses to entertainment... get drink...sit at tables" routine.
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8. Quizzes - God's Gift To GMs
If you know your players are going to go to a new city in this session then ask them questions (written Q&A - or "Character Quizzes" for us Amber players).
For example:
   1. Explain what you (or your character, or both) imagine by the rather vague description of "a good bar"? An expensive bar? A smelly bar? A cheap bar?
This sort of question gets your players to provide you with their visions of the world. You can use these as your inspiration when you haven't got any.
2. What is your character interested in looking at/scanning for when they enter an unknown bar?
3. What do you think your character is interested in for entertainment? Assume they can afford anything.
I wouldn't advise giving them anything that exactly matches their descriptions... There's no spice in that! More importantly for responses from the first question (and any activity that they do a lot), try running things against their expectations occasionally, if you can.
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9. City Adventures I - Setting Your Stage
Avoid letting the story wander to so many places that the city becomes a blur of streets! Take a leaf out of the White Wolf Books - the Chicago sourcebooks, and try to create a feel for a couple of discreet areas.
For example:
    * Use 2 locations from each of the broad areas you have decided to depict in your city.
  • Limit street trawling by the PCs for nasties.
  • Try to generate three distinctly different entertainment venues. If you can get some music for each, great. (On this note, take the Baz Luhrman approach – you don’t need historically accurate songs – just get something that strikes a chord with how a modern person might feel in the modern equivalent of that setting)

    [Johnn: for more info on the movie and stage director, Baz Luhrman, check this out: ]

  • If “monster bashing” is in the cards, try to do it chiefly when the PCs have gone looking for it, with information on where these things are (eg. in the TV series “Angel”, Cordelia has visions, or your PCs may have info gathered by their con-man or holy fella).
These techniques allow you to focus on an actual location in the city.... and not have to resort to wandering monster tables too much.
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10. City Adventures II - Engaging Encounters (The Antagonists And The Foils)
Warn your players that no dice-roll will be preceding each "random" encounter. They need to just play their character and decide on what's important and what's ancillary as you serve it up to them. This alone will help your players not fall into a routine of treating some encounters as "plot" and others as "random".
If you are playing a swords-and-sorcery game with monsters, definitely use those "random monster" charts, but use them before a game, and try to come up with a back-story for each of your wandering-whatsits, in the same way you would normally make up a thumb-nail sketch of a walk-on NPC.
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11. City Adventures III - Guards! Guards! (The Chorus)
Devote a lot of time to how you will characterise the law, as vigilantes are generally not appreciated. Getting your troupe into the spirit of how they, as adventurers, would respond to the law can be tricky when dealing with those game systems where people get oodles of "You can't touch this!" i.e. lots of hit points ;-)
Examples of encounters that can clue players in to the fact that adventurers are not received well:
   1. Suspicious gate guards suggesting adventurers go to the tax office to declare their earnings.
2. A Barman eyes the PCs' swords meaningfully.
3. A bar patron, perhaps a farmer or labourer, eyes the PCs' weapons and moves another table away.
4. A bloke takes his sweetheart out of the bar after the "adventurer types" walk in.
5. Everywhere the PCs go, people ask them if they know anything about "Svald the Bald" (a brigand) or his men, etc., and while no one is actually trying to be offensive, the implication is clear.... adventurers are automatically suspect.
6. Guard patrols from different precincts stop the PCs... ("Hell, Larry! Look at all them swords! They don't look like Lord Krondell's men....We better check that out..."). The PCs may soon feel they are the victims of organised harassment - but this isn't the case, just several different patrols of guards independently all thinking the same thing: "Here's Trouble".
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12. City Adventures IV - What Ordinary People Don't Know
You know what makes me chuckle? A PC talking in-character about the "Thieves Guild". At its worst, it's most cliche. Surely these "institutions" are known as only (pick one) "the Business/Firm/Family/Organisation".
Also, unless you're on the madcap Disc-world where these things are parodied as really being public institutions of a fixed address and law-abiding nature, then surely the people and or location of these thing's aren't public! Furthermore, these things will generally have no fixed address.
Think about the model you want for your "thieves guild".
    * An old established firm, like in the Sopranos?
  • A new gang? Ask yourself where the core members picked up their core skills.
  • Brigandage? Then they’re likely into “protection” and thuggery, and trying to get info on the big caravans to get a cut of proceeds from existing brigandage.
  • Pick-pockets? Possibly also into selling stolen goods, drugs and perhaps prostitution.
  • Cons? Possibly these types are very clever and have a penchant for organising quasi-legitimate businesses and have moved into smuggling.
  • Slavery? Here’s trouble. These sorts, along with the brigands, value human life very little. These are dangerous folk.
Whatever the model of "thieves guild" you choose, think of all the criminal movies you've seen. Your Troupe of PCs can bumble along and seriously cock-up any of these thieves' "businesses" quite accidentally, with serious repercussions for those adventurers.
For example:
    * I'd imagine nothing will quite chill (or madden) the party like having their most powerful fighter delivered to them either in a body-bag (in a campaign where death and resurrection are like slaps and band-aids) or very nearly dead, and missing some small body part.
  • Clouseau-like thieves who can’t get anything right… How you choose to use them as their plans come undone, even without the PCs intervention, (but perhaps by coincidence the PCs are always on the scene and can take the credit), could be a light-hearted change of pace, or even a recurring gag in the city campaign.
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13. City Adventures V - Transition - Toadies As The Way To Some Limited Influence
So you're rich? Well, it's not just desperate peasants, mercenary courtesans, and hopeful sell-swords who might want a piece of it..... there's bankers, lawyers, and financiers as well! Seriously, the PCs might find themselves hounded by people eager to give them "A guaranteed 10% return!", and lavish them with high-class restaurant nights, and perhaps all the (Ahem) company they want.
This can be an excellent transition for the characters from adventuring life into being based in a city. Simply being courted by developers, would-be advisers and their ilk will immediately set your more social players' minds moving.
Respectability, power, security, influence.... things many adventurers craved when they set out hoping to gain power by being adventurers. Yet all they obtained was the admiration of a few villagers for a season, a feast of a fattened calf, the eternal hero-worship of some 5-year-old for avenging his parent's death, and perhaps some gold. A city's adoring toadies hold the promise of conveying the real benefits that wealth can bring.
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14. City Adventures VI - A Big Hook
Romance. I wish I could give some concrete advice on writing romance stories that will appeal to your troupe, but it is bound to be a highly particular thing. I can say one thing for certain, nothing will make your average plucky adventurer remain in one place than pursuing a love that they hope to bring to consummation, other than say, making them King of the Realm ;-).
Playing NPCs that the players can even pretend their character could fall in love with? Well, it's not for all GMs, or for all troupes. I wonder if maybe romance in RP games might be another good topic, Johnn?
[Johnn: I know my group often skirts around the issue. :) Does anyone have some "romance in RPGs" tips?]
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15. City Adventures VII - Are We Having Fun? Pay-Offs And Game Balance
I can't speak for the exact sort of city adventure you will choose to run, but I'll make the assumption that the option to adventure outside the city still exists.
If that's the case, I would suggest that you need to make sure that the promise of one of the following 5 general aims are present to each and every one of the PCs - and that you have taken the right measure of your audience and matched the right suite of motivations to the right players.
   1. Power
   2. Romance
   3. Wealth
   4. Respectability
   5. Acceptance
Often, creative GMs with perfectly decent ideas for stories "tank" because they failed to provide good audience hooks. Make sure there is something for everyone, and you'll find that you'll be able to keep the city adventure going for a long time.
I know a whole essay could be written on just this one issue. [Johnn: any takers?] This set of production tips mentions it in the throwaway fashion, because to neglect completely would be criminal. If you don't consider these audience hooks, your troupe may well wish to go back to the simpler wilderness/dungeon adventuring, with its six-fold model of motivation for monster-bashing (fun, glory, gold, duty, honour, and power). This "simple" adventuring can accommodate all six within the one unified activity.
Presenting a city in such a way that it is an attractive place to play an adventure, let alone a campaign, takes an impressive set of skills. With some preparation, and a lot of thought, you should be able to produce really impressive city gaming material.
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Good Gaming,

  1. 9 Basic Pointers

From: Shane H.

1. Make it big. Describe how huge it is - how wide the streets are, how high the buildings are. Describe the amount of people on the streets, the traffic, the detritus.
2. It's a noisy place. Play some music or even a recording of the correct time period/environment.
3. Bureaucracy is a killer. If the PCs want to do anything by the book they have to follow a trail of paper and data to do it.
4. Everybody has a life. Make sure to reflect that.
5. Crime. There's plenty of that too. Encourage an underworld and organise it.
6. Factions. People fight and have conflicts - sometimes without reason.
7. Urban decay. Some parts of the city are falling to bits, and so are the citizens.
8. Urban legends. Every city has one or two that are unique to the city. They don't even need to be adventure hooks.
9. Policing. Some police are good, some are bad, and some are misunderstood.

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  1. Avoid Bartering With Large Groups

Django D. writes:

In our games there were certain players who enjoyed bartering for goods in every village/town/city we passed through. This was fine when there were only a few characters, but with larger groups these bartering sessions were taking an hour or more – people rolling bargaining skill checks, shopping around, etc.

Our GM put an end to that for the larger groups. The players would create a shopping list of the items they were looking for and include the ‘standard’ prices alongside each. This list was handed to the GM with the results of the bargaining skill dice roll. The GM would then hand back the list with adjusted costs based on the bargaining rolls. If you couldn’t afford everything then you knocked items off at the list value until you were happy.

It wouldn’t necessarily reflect the true “bargain finder’s” ability to get the lowest price but at least we could get going once again.

[Johnn: I side with Django on this one when it looks like bartering is going to bore players. In a similar vein, keep in mind that bartering is not used and/or accepted in all cultures. There might be some roleplaying opportunities for you here when the PCs manage to offend local merchants with their false assumptions and bartering tactics.]

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  1. A Neat Method For Planning Out A City

Here are some excellent advice and tips from Dave G.

One of the best things I learned about running characters in a city is a synthesis of things I learned from your weekly tips information and my own observations as a GM.

  • Don’t spend too much time working on all of the details that the characters are going to encounter in the city. There are some great tools already available to generate things like inn names and NPC names. The critical things to develop are the names and locations you plan for next session’s adventure.
  • I take a map of my city and photocopy it down to a regular size sheet of paper, then I divide the place into fourths and decide certain things about each quadrant. I usually name the quadrants ‘wards’ and their name is tied to something specific about that area (i.e. Castle Ward, Dock Ward, Slavers Ward, etc.) The name gives me a good idea about the type of neighborhood that’s going to generally be in each area.

    Example: The Castle Ward is higher class than the rest of the city. Government offices (including the new Tax Bureau that the characters must find) are located here. The homes of much of the nobility and ruling class can be found here, along with some temples of the popular deities in the region.

  • Then I put my smaller city map in a sheet protector and use water based erasable markers to note down a code for my location key (My code is simple, I number my quadrants and I use a letter for each type of building I am detailing (i.e. G is government, T is temple, and I is an inn, etc.). I number each building in sequence. The Tax Bureau is in Quadrant 1 and it is the first government building I detailed so in the appropriate spot on the map I mark 1G1.
  • At the end of each session, I update my larger map with the code from my key. Depending upon how much time characters spend in the city, more and more details are fleshed out.
  • For sites that don’t get planned out in advance I use name generators to come up with a store name or proprietor’s name and place that info on a card for entry into my map key later. Then when the players want to go get a drink at that place with the one-eyed dwarf, it’s already got information. I usually try to come up with a name for any colorful characters, (alekeep, wenches, or bouncers in a tavern for instance) so I don’t have to do that work more than once.

    Note: sometimes the supporting cast of NPCs bring adventure hooks. One time I had the regular waitress at a tavern the PCs frequented not be working one day. It affected the whole atmosphere, because the alekeep and the bouncer had to help serve patrons. It made for a funny role-playing opportunity, and when one of the players asked about the waitress, it unveiled a mystery the players decided to solve. (Some thugs were starting a protection gambit and had kidnapped the waitress to get the alekeep to pay up!)

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  1. Another Good City Planning Method

Victor F. has a different way of planning cities:

Running city campaigns aren’t easy, but I break it down into three basic sections:

1. The poor sector of the city
2. The middle class sectors with market places
3. The rich sector with large buildings and rich architecture

That’s often the way they work anyway in both modern and ancient cities. The poorest sectors are filled with dark alleys, beggars pleading for money, and thieves looking to make a quick buck. The middle sectors aren’t as disgusting but still filled with people trying to make a quick buck. The richest sectors are filled with snotty rich folk that look down upon the poor.

As for architecture, the poorest sectors are usually built with cheaply manufactured materials (cardboard, sheet metal, etc.), while the middle sectors are made with either brick, stone, or shoddy masonry, and the richest sectors are constructed of fine materials (ivory, marble, cobble stone, etc.).

One thing that helps me with architecture and basic layout of cities is to research the time period in which my campaign is set in.

For basic layout, usually I separate it into a circle with three smaller circles inside of it separating the three basic classes. The inner smaller circle is the rich, seeing as it is in the center of all the action, the 2nd circle is the middle class sector, and the outer largest circle is the poor sector. This is just a general rule of thumb and is reflective of the way society is made in large cities. Small cities can be divided however accordingly though.

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  1. Solutions To Several Problems With City Games

Here, Gareth H. gives us several city campaign problems and some possible solutions:

1. Availability of services. One of the problems in a city- based game is that, if the city is large enough, the PCs should reasonably be able to acquire most of the things they need. This can make a game that requires a lot of resources possibly too easy, as the group can just visit their local hardware store if they run out of rope, nail-guns, chains, crowbars, etc. Place some other barrier in the way: lack of finances, a time-limit, etc. to make them plan their equipment more effectively.
2. Too many NPCs. In a city game, there are more potential NPCs than any GM could easily describe. Groups have a habit of saying "We go and visit the park/restaurant/mall/library", and expect to interact with a range of NPCs you may not have planned. It helps to have a list of NPC names and simple personality traits ready, in this case, to support the imagery of a bustling metropolis.
3. Ease of transport. Part of the fun of some games is just in getting to the destination. In a city, however, everything is relatively closely spaced, and for a few coins you can get taken wherever you want to go by taxi, rickshaw, carriage, walking, etc. This also applies to moving large objects. If the group uncovers a gold statue they can just hire a taxi-truck or ox-drawn wagon to get it home.
If you want to delay the group, use traffic jams, riots, breakdowns, bad weather or inaccurate directions to keep them from just arriving on the Villain's doorstep, or escaping afterwards.
4. Location, Location, Location! In the wilds, one bit of forest can look much like another for many days travel. In a city, however, just turning a corner puts you in a different world. Being prepared for the vast array of different 'sets' the group may visit can be a challenge. The Abandoned Warehouse is very different in atmosphere, content and structure from City Hall just down the road. Have a few short prepared descriptions ready for the sort of locations your characters may visit in the city: Stables/Parking lot, Market/Mall, Guardhouse/Police Station, Seaport/Starport, Tavern/Nightclub, Dark Alleyway (common to any genre!) etc.
5. Getting there is half the fun. Outside of a city, the build up can be the journey to a place. In a city, the build up can be in finding the place.

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  1. Describing Cities

Gareth also has some great tips about describing cities:

1. Give each city a theme. If your group is involved in a lot of travel, and visits many different cities, then it helps to focus on what makes each city different. For example, focus on lighting and darkness in a city where you want clear distinctions between two elements of the game. Give another city a carnival feel by focusing on street parades or parties, and in another highlight the vegetation and parks to give it an organic feel. They could all be the same city, but the theme provides a different flavour.
2. Relate the city to its purpose in the game. If the PCs are visiting a city to trade, concentrate on the markets and guilds and make them the most significant element. In a game based on thieves and skullduggery, highlight the class distinction and the differences between 'have' and 'have not'. If the city is under siege, focus on the ways the citizens are reacting in small ways: barricaded windows, normally peaceful barkeeps with swords at their belt, etc.
3. Describe height differences. The major difference between cities and the wilderness is its dimensions -- cities tend to go up. Describe things above eye level such as balconies, flags on rooftops, washing lines across alleys, police and news helicopters, etc.
4. Limit line of sight. The difference between encounters in cities and the country is in how far you can see. Ambushes can be around every corner, and making a few quick turns can lose the pursuing mob. It can also help to give a sense of claustrophobia to encounters. Use words that give a sense of closeness.
5. Use character perspective. If the PCs are from a rural setting, play up the dirt, squalor, close-packed humanity and lack of recognition from passers-by, homeless people, etc. If they are city people born and bred, they may not notice, so instead describe clean and shiny buildings towering above the streets. If they are wealthy, they'll see the wealth. If they are poor, they'll see the poverty.

City tips

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