Adventure Prep: The City Adventure

For my next D&D session (which is on Friday next week), I’ve decided to go for a city-based adventure.

We’ve played 3 sessions into our new Primal/Within campaign and all those were focused on the Dungeon part of the setting and very little on the city (except to interact with Quest giving NPCs). I think that giving my players a break from dungeon crawling will likely be well received.

So the following post is my stream of counsciousness musings on City adventures as I wrap my mind around the ideas I got for my next game.

Now, as many GMs know, city-based adventures can be completely different beasts than dungeon adventures.  Unless you happen to design a site-based adventure that happens to occur in a city-building from start  to finish, a city adventure usually features scenes set in varied locales.

Without  making this post about tropes, fantasy adventures set in cities often feature the following:


The PCs are called in to solve a mystery, a murder, or to gather intelligence of a NPC or and organization.  This is a very, very large subset of adventures.  It’s also a type of adventure that is hard to properly balance to hit the motivation of a varied playiong group.

Investigation adventures are focused on scenes where players look for and obtain information.  In well-crafted investigation adventure, the hook gets the players really interested in the situation and usually involves stakes that are important for the PCs.

The most classic examples I’ve seen of investigation adventures is when PCs are framed for the murder of a NPC.  Of course such adventures can only fly if the PCs are law-abiding citizens and/or are no match for the local law enforcement forces (I always say that Iron Golem make great policemen).

Here’s a few adventure hooks based on subverting the investigation style

A NPC close to the PCs is framed for their murder.  Except the PCs aren’t dead!  They were cursed into becoming like ‘erased’.  While they are physically present, they can’t be seen or heard by anyone except, possibly, the truly insane. In fact the city is filled with many such ‘erased’ people, so much so that the PCs discover a fully functionning parallel city!  Breaking the curse before the NPC is put to death becomes the adventure’s goal.

The PCs are forced to commit a crime, something that needs to be done for the greater good of the city/world but puts them as pariah to the local authorities. Although there’s not yet enough evidence to incriminate them, the PCs must now dodge the authorities , or better yet, mislead the NPC investigators and try get away with it.

The PCs are members of a semi-criminal youth gang that’s causing trouble against the tyranical factions that rule the city with an iron fist (think Robin Hood meets Red Dawn).  They get their hands on a Macguffin that everyone wants for various reason.  The MacGuffin is radioactive in terms of Plot element (i.e. you can’t keep it, you must give it away).  The PCs must then find out what each faction wants to do with it and decide how to dispose of it.

Event-Based Adventure

City-adventures are great settings for event-based adventures.  In such adventures, scenes revolved around specific events rather than exploring specific areas.

This doesn’t mean that an event-based adventure can’t have investigations or a bit of site-based exploration.  Look at past Dungeon magazine adventures (or the current Pathfinder adventure paths from Paizo) and you’ll see adventures with a healthy mix of both.

The trick of such adventures is to get the PCs caught in the flow of events and let them influence the events with their choices and their actions.  Giving a way for PCs to have an impact on how the events play out is crucial in such adventures.  Unless you have a group of avid stoprytellers that love the sound of your voice, event-based adventures should not be scenes where PCs are mere witnesses of what unfolds around them.

A much maligned adventure path I used to own, the Witchfire Triology, was a great example of a linear event- based adventure with limited PC influence.  The PCs had little impact on the adventure other than showing up at the proper place and the proper time to either witness what the bad guys did (while fighting mooks) or fight the bad guys in fixed set-pieces.

Okay here’s two examples (I’m being helped by my buddy Yan)

Citypocalypse!  The City is invaded, a plague hits the city, a meteor smashed into the Baron’s Manor!  All order collapses, nihilistic cultists are rampant and the citizens are scared and prone to form dangerous mobs.  PCs are caught in scenes where large threats come from everywhere and they must find a way to regroup and start planning to act against such threats.

The peace summit/grand tournament.  People of power and influence (possibly the PCs if they’ve reached that point in the campaign) converge to the city.  Intrigue abound and PCs are caught in the web of alliances, deceptions and assassination attempts as they attend various parties and events as active participants, counselors or bodyguards.

If you want to turn that classic around, you make the PCs into assassins trying to get to that paranoid duchess surrounded by Hell Hounds disguised as Irish Wolfhounds.

What will you do Chatty?

Based on the suggestion of reader BradG in my last post, I’ve decided that I’ll mix it up a bit.

I’m going to have elections in the City Within for the representative of the City’s newest Burg.  PCs are going to be hired as bodyguards. They’ll get to choose which of 4 candidates (the top ones needing ‘protection’) they want to be assigned to (allowing the party to ‘split’ along different candidates is expected).  Said candidates will have wildly diverging plans for the new burg and I intend to have the PCs actions shape who will get elected and what will happen to this part of the city.

I’ll sprinkle this with intrigues and threats from external forces and I may just have a great adventure in the makling.  So the adventure will a mix of event-based action and investigation.  I’ll also try to leave myself open for some improvisation to create new NPCs and places on the spot that players meay revisit later.

I hope my players will like it.

Okay so I’ll need:

  • Candidate NPCs
  • Some secondary NPCs to be the candidates entourage
  • Divergent, conflicting electoral programs for each candidates
  • Threats and scenes where all candidates are present to allow PCs to be together
  • A mechanic to play out the elections result
  • Treasures (payment) for the PC’s work… I’ll probably put in a ‘danger pay’ element to thier bodyguarding contract.

Your turn now, what about your best and worst city based adventures.  What made them work, what made them fail?  Let me know, I’m taking notes!


  1. I’ve run many a city-based adventure. In many ways I prefer them to dungeons as there’s a never-ending stream of new faces, potential situations and events in a city that’s hard to replicate in 10′ corridors.

    Flood Season from the Shackled City adventure path is a classic of the genre, and well worth the re-readthru for inspiration. I’ve also subjected Ptolus (my fantasy city of choice) to incursions of Githyanki, Devilish Doppelgangers and time flowing backwards. That one was fun – the Fighter’s wife gave birth to his first son, then the next day was pregnant again with no sight of the newborn babe. Totally freaked out the players 😀

    Cities, above all, have secrets. There’s histories of the founding fathers which have been revised (only for the truth to be uncovered by the PCs), bodies buried in walls and ancient evil lurking in the sewers just waiting for the planets to re-align. Toss in a few rival cults, a graveyard stocked with restless corpses and an entire underclass subculture, and add salt to taste.

    Cities? I love ’em.

  2. Players tend to go wild in cities, exploring everything. Make sure you know it inside out, or are really good at improvising. 🙂

    Tahakkis last blog post..Rewriting Rivenroar 1: Bar Fight!

  3. @Tahakki: It depends heavily on your players and the way you present it.

    If your city is fully mapped and put down the map in front of the player with a: “Your in the city. What do you do next?” your only begging for it… 😉

    Contrary to Phil I hardly ever do dungeon but cities I did a plenty. I love cities it has structure without you needing to define it. Player will usually go to specific place of relevance to the story, which makes it easy to prepare (if you need it). It’s also easy to improvise since we have all seen a city and most place can be resume to be for shopping, entertainment, security or politics.

  4. @Greywulf: I loved Ptolus, we played in it for a year and I promised myself that I would re-use it in the future. Still, I’ve relatively little experience in designing city adventures so the one I’ll work on over the next few days will be good practice. As you say, the possibilities for setting interaction are much broader than in the confines of a 5 room dungeon.

    @Tahakki: My players are relatively tame in that they’ll expect some dancing plot points to parade in front of them before deciding to grab them. Where it becomes less predictable is the (often wrong) conclusions they’ll arrive to after a short investigation and me having to fit the story in whatever direction the players decide to go.

    Lord knows I could use more practice being spontaneous. 🙂

    @Yan: Yeah, in this you totally own me for sure. I’ll have a tall order to fill next week! 🙂

  5. The other thing is to encourage the players to take ownership of at least a part of the city. Help them to make it theirs.

    For example, if you’ve a character from the slum district and you’ve no immediate plans for that area, ask him to map it out, describe a few NPCs, etc. This makes the city feel more alive, gives the different areas distinct personalities (ie, not all yours!). It’s also Very Lazy GM’ing.

    It also means that the players (and therefore by extension, the characters) have invested something into the city. So when the Bad Things Happen, it’s personal. It’s not some nameless, faceless town you’ve spent hours creating but they’ve only known about for 5 minutes.

    It’s theirs, and they’ll defend it to the death. And that’s a Good Thing, right?

  6. Hummm… I’m tempt to make you work hard on next session… :p

    @Greywulf: Yep I totally agree with the feeling of attachment if you’ve helped shape the thing…

  7. I loved running the Freeport series. You can find all sorts of good ideas by either running those or mining them for additional ideas. Excellent venues abound, and much of it is easy to convert as the newer Freeport background books are not system specific.

    Any Paizo Adventure Path will have serious potential. The Skinsaw Murders (Rise of the Runelord) or some of the stuff early in the Savage Tide would be ideal.

  8. Out of curiosity (since I just posted my list of Five Fantasy City Supplements You Need), what is/are your favourite city supplements, ChattyDM?

    Dyson Logoss last blog post..Minor Site Design Update

  9. My best city adventure was my very first adventure as a DM. The city was mapped out and the players, after a few games, knew where to go to find whom and how to get things done. Whenever they returned to the city, something new was happening that they could become involved in. There were things that only happened at certain periods of the day, things that only happened on certain days. It was complex, but they got it, and they remembered, and so I could lay back and let them go where they wanted, when they wanted.

    My worst was some of the playtest games for Spirits of Eden a year ago, which took place for the City of Sialsol. In trying to convey the large, epic nature of the city, I did too much, and the PCs were overwhelmed with choices. They became tourists, which none of us minded, but it wasn’t really what we intended to do. Rather than explore, they stayed in the immediate surroundings I had placed them in so as not to have to make a choice, and when they did move elsewhere, they also stagnated there. In the end when I sent a combat encounter at them, it felt awkward. Everyone could tell I just wanted them to do something other than sight-see, and Inaw assassins in the middle of the day, in a plaza, was kinda weird.

    Wyatts last blog post..Wyatt’s Words: Daydreaming Design

  10. One of your candidates could be your Mad Wizard. He could completely refuse to have anything to do with the PC’s protection and then, of course, be attacked (probably not fatally as you don’t want to lose the hook potential you already have going). He could have a platform of using the new burg as a community of magic researchers- thinking that, as mayor, he can work in secret on his own projects and also review/steal others’ ideas.

  11. @Dyson: we had the Ptolus map in a previous campaign and we actually used it 2 or 3 times at most… That is about the one and only city we ever had a map for. Otherwise we go as follow:

    “Is there shop selling magical item around here?” or whatever we are looking for at the moment.

    Phil either say yes or no and something if what we are searching is illegal or rare we might have some skill roll to locate the shop/sellers/informant/etc…

    Works like a charm. 😉

  12. Not certain I ever ran a successful city adventure…

    Closes I got was a “scene” from a run of kobold keep, where I had my players (all pre-teens) interrogate and investigate in a small village – which quickly got them to Kobold Keep. t’was nice.

    I kind of tried in my last game session (a CSI-like scene), but I failed to notice that my players were almost starting to fall asleep on me…

    Nowhere to go but up, eh? 🙂

    Eric Maziades last blog post..Meet Eldak "Grissom" Serpenthelm

  13. @Greywulf: We have a lot of that with Yan being co-designer of (and more focused on) the City and its inhabitants. As for the other players, I’ll see how interested they are to invest themselves and we’ll go from there. I know that Franky (dwarven Shaman) will likely want to expand on the role of the World’s spirit in the clash between the city and the Dungeon.

    @Yan: You’re going to go instigator on me dear friend? That I gotta see!

    @Ericc: Welcome to the blog! I will definitively go back and look at my old Pathfinder adventures and Ptolus. That last one has a whole section on the undergrown part of Ptolus including a whole chapter on a Dwarven city, plus some notes on a Drow city.. so I’ll have plenty of material to borrow from.

    @Dysan: My favorite city supplement has, by far, been Monte Cook’s Ptolus as it is the most complete city supplement I have ever seen. I also used to have the Lankmhar (sp?) city supplement for A D&D 1e which had great maps and a fine ‘city geomorph’ approach to customize the map. After that I really like Pathfinder’s treatment of various cities in the Adventure Paths.

    @Wyatt: IO think its a common occurence to have confused players when we set the scale of a setting to high. If things are too Epic and too many things happen at the same time, some gaming groups get paralyzed by the options… and there’s only so many times you can have ninjas burst through the windows to attack the PCs.

    @Eric: Yeah, detecting your group’s energy level and being able to do something about it when your DMing notes tell you otherwise is quite a challenge. I’m sure this will make for a great talk on our next lunch together.

  14. One of the things I’d do if writing this is limit the time of the political campaign. In the hawk & fisher story I mentioned in a prior blog the city had a law that said you could only campaign one day a year – on election day. The first half of the story is about the political figure going to each of his campaign stops to whip up support. This makes some sense in terms of your world: resources are somewhat scarce in City and the Builders want to have fair elections but they don’t want too many resources spent on political campaigns so they limit (time box) how long campaigning can go on.

    In D&D terms you can think of each campaign stop equal to an Encounter. Maybe in one campaign stop the candidate is attacked (combat encounter). In other, the crowd is unusally angry at the candidate (skill challenge: spot the person inciting the crowd or to calm the crowd down). Of course the Builders (or representatives of the City) are overseeing the political process and one of election monitors stops the candidate to question his paperwork (skill challenge: spot the forged paperwork and provide the correct paperwork or convince the builder he’s wrong).

    The biggest challenge in city adventures is variety. The main creatures the PCs should fight, if it comes to that, is most likely going to be humanoids. The challenge is to not make every fight Yet Another Humanoid Fight. Constructs aren’t too hard to work in and of course you can say the non-humanoid creature is just a pet. Beyond that there needs to be some thought as to why the creature is appearing in the middle of a city.

    If your looking for some inspiration for skill challenges I’d recommend the latest adventure offering from Dungeon Magazine – “Throne of the Stone Skinned King”. This is the first Dungeon adventure that actually has some decently done skill challenges. Most of what WOTC has done to date has been pretty bad (exception: some of the RPGA adventures). The adventure has a Complexity 5 skill challenge – a negotiation amongst several parties. Events occur during the skill challenege that can help, or hinder the party.

  15. @BradG: Thanks for the deluge of ideas. My goal was to have scenes set about the campaign, making it into a one day event is a great idea that would help fit everything in an adventure of adequate length and each scene can be naturally stringed together.

    I too am often worried about how ‘boringly normal’ a fight against humanoids in a city can feel, but having one every so often offers a contrast to the other types of ‘out there’ encounters. Then again, the city is so close to the Dungeon and in the Underdark that it’s easy enough to think up reasons to have monsters drop in on the PCs.

    In fact, I could possibly take @mln84’s ideas (Welcome to the blog man, I skipped your comment, so sorry) and use the wizard as a candidate that has no chance whatsoever of winning and may accidentally release one of its pets on the other candidates to give him some sort of edge…

    Possibilities, endless… which is a challenge in itself not getting daunted by all this.

    As for skill challenges, we’ve had several in the last few games and I may go more the classic way and leave the outcomes more open to old-fashioned “roleplay it to convince the DM to enact the desired outcome.

  16. I’m more into solving mysteries with scary stuff on the side. Looks creepy though.


  1. […] the following post is my stream of counsciousness musings on City adventures as I wrap my mind aro click for more var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : […]