I'm new to RPGs, and I've tried to read some transcriptions or watch some podcasts, but I don't understand how the game works outside a dungeon. Does the city has to be a real city or just a group of places?

For example: if my PCs are in the tavern and they want to go to the market. Do they have to walk down the streets, with me describing everything as if they were in a dungeon, or is it ok to "fast travel" them to the location? Should I have a plan of the streets or can they just teleport from place to place?

Note that I am running a Pathfinder game but the question should be applicable to any systems.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NetHacker yeah, sometimes people are overzealous in demanding system specificity. We should be specific where it matters and not where it doesn't. (Plus, you are free to ignore people - if they have the diamond or a high rep then they may have good ideas, but not every comment request is valid.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is a more general question on skipping scenes (such as the walk from the tavern to the market here): How can I recognise when a Scene should be skipped? \$\endgroup\$
    – Anaphory
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 10:54

4 Answers 4


It's up to you.

One of the joys of roleplaying games is that as the GM you have a large degree of flexibility in what you do.

Flexibility versus Preparation

If you prepare a city with a lot of diagrams and an actual map, that's great. You'll be able to come up with stuff without even having to stop and think about it because you've already charted it out and written it down. However, it also strips away some of the narrative flexibility unless you're willing to go back and ignore previously written stuff.

Take, for instance, a chase. On one hand, you could design it to go from Point A to Point B on the map, which is great, but that takes away some of the decision making. If the players get beat up along the way, you have to decide whether or not they even make it to Point B, or fudge. If you're working in a narrative format, you could decide that the players make it to their destination after taking a little beating.

Of course, you've also got more preparation if you have a mapped out city, which means that you can plug stuff in as needed. Just be sure to leave some white space to fill in the gaps; there will be some buildings of no interest to adventurers in every city, and having a few nondescript areas allows you to then later label them appropriately on map and incorporate them into your adventures.

Of course, you don't have to show your players the map, and it can be strictly for your purposes. In one of my Shadowrun games I kept a map of Seattle with a list of places they'd done runs/met Johnsons/etc., and it worked well to keep my mind fresh and allow me to come up with inspiration.

Narrative versus Setting

Another thing to consider is that designing a city may not actually help your campaign along. If you're doing an urban exploration campaign, like in the plot of the first bit of the original Neverwinter Nights, then having a really detailed city can help the plot because players will have the ability to explore and adventure.

On the other hand, if you're playing a standard Swords and Sorcery dungeon crawl, I wouldn't worry about having cities with details; if it's not the point of your game you shouldn't waste time on it. Not only does it tempt you to bog down the adventure with details that players don't care about, but it's a waste of prep time that could go toward making the core focus of your game better.

Remember, focus on what your game wants to do, and don't worry about going into specific detail on everything just because the setting lends itself to it. Similarly, remember that planning often goes unused, and don't be afraid to add something on the fly just because you haven't fully planned it out.

Use What You Have

If you have a preexisting map, feel free to give it to the players and let them sort of guess where things are. When you have a modern game, that can be as simple as choosing a city, but with fantasy or science fiction games you still have options. If you're feeling particularly lazy, you could even take a map from a video game that your players haven't played or find a random map generator, then just fill in the blank spaces with things as your players ask about them and as the plot demands them. Before long, you'll have a setting with a smattering of familiar places and important locales to explore. Keeping a few little notes on each location goes a long way toward consistency, but even without them you can provide a more "planned" experience without too much planning overhead just by having names and locations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It might also be worth mentioning that depending on what exactly the players decide to do, you might end up planning a whole lot of stuff that never gets used \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 16:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, you clarified a lot. Since I'm gonna run a urban-adventure, I know what to do now. \$\endgroup\$
    – olinarr
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Phil ...and using a whole lot of stuff that never got planned. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Both of those things are very true. I personally have a loose GM'ing style because rails are made to be derailed on. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 21:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ The biggest problem with excessive planning is that it's a lot of work and very frustrating when it ends up not getting used. Such experiences can burn out a GM quickly. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 10:33

Focus on the interesting bits

Think of your game like a movie... if the trip from the tavern to the market is important to the story, then make the trip a "scene" of its own. If it isn't (you have no ambush or "chance" meeting planned), then skip straight to the scene at the market.

Background-wise, when creating a location like a city, you only need to focus on (create notes on, invent NPCs for, etc) those areas you think are likely to be of interest... places the PCs are likely to go and where a piece of the story is likely to occur. The market can be as simple as "Okay, you go to the market and buy the supplies on your list" and not be a scene at all... you don't need to know the specific stalls, who the vendors and street people are, etc. That depends on what you as GM want to do with the market in your story, and how your players are going to interact. If your players want to turn the market into a scene by striking up conversations (maybe because they're hunting for clues), then some aspects of the market become more important.

How much pre-planning you do for something like that depends on your improvisational skills. That's something you get better at with practice.

As a GM, I like having city maps and details, but that's more for my own comfort... I love maps and having a map helps me imagine the city better. The less abstract the city is for me, the better I am at making the city more real for the players.

As a novice GM (forgive me for assuming you are if that's not the case), I recommend that you lean on published materials to fill in a lot of the gaps at first. A good city sourcebook with maps, places of interest and NPC writeups both gives you a lot of material to work with and serves as an example for your own creations. Even experienced GMs lean on published material... world-building can be a huge amount of work and even old hands can find themselves in need of some pre-made content to fill the gap.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NetHacker: Check out this and related free PDF resources for city building: rpgnow.com/product/55264/A-Magical-Medieval-Society-City-Guide - \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Big fat +1 just for the title. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 9:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Building a city on the fly is surprisingly easy when you've got a checklist of "interesting bits" you can go down, sketching out for the players or skipping depending on the city. E.g. walls, gatehouses, taverns, inns, aqueducts, palace, jail, university, temple district, arena, market, slums, mid-high-class district. This takes maybe a minute or two, and future details practically insert themselves. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 19:51

You can do it either way: there's no right way to do this, just like there's no right way for the author of a book to move around in their story. The general GM skill involved in choosing how to move the game along is called "pacing", and it's one of the harder skills to "level up" but also one of the most powerful skills you have as a GM. (That you're wondering about this is a good thing! I means you care about this stuff and are already thinking of different pacing techniques you could use.)

Either one has benefits and drawbacks that are too numerous or situational to cover here. But the point is: both work, and you'll use them each to gain a particular pacing effect.

Having them walk down the street in detailed narration is useful when you want to draw the players' attention to the street. You might do this for any number of reasons; for example, you want to briefly tell them what city life here looks like, you're about to set up something that they witness (a crime, someone important passing by, etc.), you want to put them in the street just to get them moving and then ask them what business they want to take care of today. Whatever reason you have for focusing so much attention on just walking along, it's nearly always in service to some other goal.

Similarly, you can say that some time has passed and skip straight to describing the PCs in a new location and situation. (Some places online, you will hear this called "aggressive scene framing", and it's considered a useful skill to practice.) Again, you choose this instead of doing it some other way because it serves some reason you have: your players are really interested in talking to this one shopkeeper and you just want to skip right to that conversation and avoid distractions that might come up while getting there, you have only 45 minutes of game time left and you want to get them to this one last place before you finish, or you don't have anything interesting to say about the walk over there.

You'll find that there are lots of ways you can control the flow of the game: you can start really slow with them walking down the street, see if anything happens, then skip quickly across town once you know that they want to head to a particular shop. You might zoom in on a few split-seconds of action while they witness a mugging down a side-alley and you ask them how they respond, zoom out a bit to the speed of your game's combat system or chase system (assuming they get involved), then maybe when that business is done you zoom out way further and skip to "at the tavern that night, you overhear people talking about the mugging while you eat..." You might start describing how a day passes, hear a player interrupt to say they wanted to do something, "rewind" a little to the appropriate time, and slow down to a walking-along pace.

There are lots of ways to do pacing right. And the only wrong way to do pacing is if you notice your players are bored when you go slow, or they keep telling you "no wait! I wanted to do something" when you go fast. Try things and see how they work! Experimentation is the surest way to learn pacing as a skill.


Think of it as a movie!

If you were watching a movie about the adventures of your party, then would the movement through the city be shown on-screen (given your situation and style of play) or happen during a scene change?

If the shopping is important, or the city particularly interesting, then it would deserve 'screentime', if it's refreshing supplies in a bland place, then not.

If the story is high adventure, focusing on glorious exploits of over-the-top heroes; then shopping would be excluded unless it includes bargaining with the court wizard for a dragonslaying artifact; but if the setting is gritty and down-to-earth, then getting a room and a beer in the local inn may be a significant encounter, roleplaying the details of it.

On a side note, maps are useful to illustrate the options that players have - it may inspire them to visit some interesting places or people that they wouldn't think of otherwise.


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