I'm currently in the middle of DM'ing a city campaign. I've found it's quite a bit more difficult than a dungeon. I have the city mostly planned out (type of city, the ruler, the districts, centers of power, etc)— I used a generator to get most of that info.

My problems are these:

  1. What do I say to the PCs when they get to a part I haven't written anything for or planned anything? Currently, when this happens, my mind races and I pause for a bit while trying to think of something. Any tips?

  2. When the PCs need to get from point A to point B in the city, how do I describe the journey there? Currently, I say something like "you head south and then west" and maybe throw in a random encounter. How do you guys do it?

Any ideas or tips would be appreciated. I do have the Cityscape book, which is a great resource. I'm looking for how other DMs run a city campaign, and for any tips on how to make one successful.



  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, yes. :) Right now we are playing mostly in the 1st edition (that's what I grew up with and what I know). The other players are new to D&D. We're planning on switching the 5th edition once it is all released. \$\endgroup\$ – Colin Aug 19 '14 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you refine your definition of city campaign? Do you have some kind of plot already prepared or do you allow your players to roam freely in the city and choose their own path? \$\endgroup\$ – Dargor Aug 19 '14 at 14:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ At this point, the PCs are just wandering about. I have no definite plot or point to being in the city... yet. I'm probably going to come up with something... just not sure what yet. \$\endgroup\$ – Colin Aug 19 '14 at 15:03

Write places apart from their location

You can make your dungeons apart from their locale. Perhaps you've written up an encounter in the catacombs of the sun god, but the party keeps walking around in the harbor district instead of the city center? Move it to the temple of the sea god! Thieves' Guild up to no good? Party has found another of their hiding spots in the rich part of town! Party finds an evil cult hiding in an old granary? Make them hide in a new granary, that burned down under suspicious circumstances!

In short, write so that the locale cannot be found in just one spot. Same goes for random encounters: they do not have to be bound to one sport. Fire, brawl fights or sudden Purple Worm attacks do not give a hoot about where in the city they are.

And don't forget: write up the crude lines for all districts of your city, from the rich parts to the poor parts to the merchant district to the market district to the harbor district and everything else.

Making my way downtown...

Make there interesting places for the PCs to see: maybe they find statues of heroes of the days of yore, or religious buildings, or cementaries, or maybe just a tavern with a funny sign outside. Keep repeating these locales as the party walks by them, so they start recognising the places. And if they start to recognise them, they start to care, meaning they will do stuff to defend these places, allowing for you to guide the story a bit more.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great tips. Thanks!! Good idea for moving encounters if I need to. I hadn't considered that! \$\endgroup\$ – Colin Aug 19 '14 at 15:03

For question 1 what to do for places you have not yet written, there are two great options.

  1. Quantum Ogre: This means that you have some places defined but not exactly where they are. When the players adventure into an unknown place, you give them this predefined but unplaced encounter/plot hook etc.

  2. Random Tables. Prepare some random tables for your city. When they go into an uknown place, roll on the table to see what is there, and then improv it's relevance.

For question 2, I think how you are doing is basically the best way to do it. However, what you might want to consider is adding flavorful language.

  • "You step past some manure"
  • "You see a lady putting her childen to bed through a window"
  • "You think you smell some sweet flowers, only to realize it's rotting garbage from the inn you passed".

However, sometimes, and very rarely, I have seen the city being handled like a Maze dungeon. The players are asked at every intersection if they want to go straight, left, right or make a u-turn. I don't recommend this for most games, but sometimes, that can be a lot of fun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! That's a great tip for colorful language. I will definitely do that. I also like your idea (and @thomas-jacobs for the encounters without a specific location) \$\endgroup\$ – Colin Aug 19 '14 at 15:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like how this answer is concise. I would just add that, for question 2, it should depend on how familiar is the journey. When it's not familiar at all, describe extensively, but don't waste time in common basic travel (unless something really unexpected happens) \$\endgroup\$ – Dargor Aug 19 '14 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ "a lady putting her childen to bed through a window" -- not the usual way of doing it ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Aug 19 '14 at 16:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ All great except for the term "Quantum Ogre". That term is very specific, and means not just a floating encounter, but a floating encounter that the GM is moving in front of the PCs no matter what they do. It's a type of railroading via unplaced encounters, not a term for unplaced encounters in general. As fun a name as it is, it doesn't mean what you're describing here. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 19 '14 at 19:35

What you want is enough information to be able to improvise in a city. Cities are actually easier to improvise with... if only because you can draw upon a general knowledge of human society to make up things as you go along. You know what a wealthy part of town probably has, compared to the docks, compared to the working class neighborhood.

You can write up a short 1-3 sentence description of the general district to draw upon ideas in the moment.

Redside - the working class living area, mostly woodworkers and smiths, split between the old city dwellers (Originally the "Red Yargis Clan" hence the title), and the more recent Khazis who have moved in the last 3 generations. Pubs, bawdy songs, rough wrestling/boxing matches.

Have these descriptions either on a single sheet or on index cards for quick reference.

Likewise, if players are travelling, you don't need to always have an "encounter" - sometimes it's just worth explaining where things are, how they work, how things are changing in response to the world around them. ("Normally the shops would be open, but after that last monster attack on the walls, enough people died you can see most of the windows hang the Black Flag of Mourning... this neighborhood had many of the guard living here and were hit the hardest.")

And if nothing interesting happens, just a simple, "40 minutes later you walk up the hill on a chilly night, finally getting to the viewpoint..." or whatever cuts to the chase.

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A purely urban campaign was one of the most memorable 1st edition AD&D campaigns I ever played in and would share these tips from that experience:

  1. What you haven't planned for: as a dense concentration of humanity (or demihumans), a city is an impossible canvas to plan for entirely. But that is its greatest strength as well. All things are possible at any given time, while it is perfectly acceptable that nothing happen beyond the mundane as well. (more below)

  2. Describing the journey: know how long it takes to get from one place to another in your city, have a weather system that can influence travel/visibility/etc., then just use time and the character of the districts (seedy/uptown/industrious/bawdy/etc.) being traversed to describe the trip.

Tips non-specific to your question:

  • Have a map (original or borrowed: Google search 'fantasy city map') then trust your player's imaginations to paint the details in their mind's eye. (Google search 'fantasy city scene' for descriptive inspiration.)
  • Have a calendar and track time: Unlike the dungeon/wilderness, time is very important in the rhythms of an urban environment's commercial/religious/political/watch & guard/criminal organization's activities and presence. Use this to add flavor and 'density' to your campaign. (Greyhawk was always my favorite for this type of data.)
  • Understand that the city is where the power structures of civilization are concentrated, utilize this to focus and inspire the PC's about their place in the world. It's easy to just wing the details of origin/family/obligations/etc. when in the wilderness, but the city is where the cleric's church/magic-user's college/thief's guild/fighter's training master/etc. are located. These individuals and organizations should be relevant both as benefit and hindrance, they will have their own agendas/rivalries/crisis. (The Three Musketeers are a great inspiration for this sort of game-play.)
  • Cities are rife with structural conflicts that don't involve the universal struggle of Good vs. Evil, both vertical (ruler vs. noble vs. merchant vs. laborers) and horizontal (rival thieves guilds/rival noble factions/rival orders of knighthood/competing commercial interests/etc.). Map these out for areas of influence and specific issues of conflict. Review the random encounters and see where you may want to specify the possible factions that specific encounters may be affiliated with. This will allow for some organic positive/negative relationships to develop, and ground some of your 'random' encounters in the existing power structures. (Historic Rome would be a good source of inspiration, see 'The First Man in Rome' book for a great start.)
  • Cities are the prizes in the universal conflict of Good vs. Evil. Evil will forever be present, undermining political stability, and luring the greedy/lustful/power-mad into pledging their soul in return for immediate advantage (which always comes with a caveat); rich territory for plot-hooks. (Warhammer Fantasy literature has many good examples of this sort of story.)
  • Last but not least: the PC's are not invisible and the other city dwellers are not blind. Unlike in a dungeon/wilderness setting, there is no 'we'll just leave the dungeon and rest easy in the inn, they won't follow us' dynamic in an urban environment, either you are aligned with a powerful faction(s) in the city, or you are against them all. You don't have a fight with the city watch one night, then wander around the market the next day shopping for swords. The authorities will very quickly escalate every conflict with the PC's to a degree that will overwhelm any but the very highest level party. (The Conan stories often had scenes of Conan fleeing a city with the city watch, or some noble's guards, in hot pursuit.)
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A lot depends on the physics of how you're already running things. If players have a map then there's no great need to describe the route - just decide if it's a short, medium or long trip and roll a chance (say, 1 in 20 in day, 1 in 10 for night) for an encounter once, twice, or three times. Modify the die (ie, use a d8 or d6) depending on the areas they pass through if you like.

Bear in mind that an "encounter" in 1e is "a significant encounter"; you don't really meet fewer people during the day but most of them are of no interest.

Since you're playing AD&D, you can use the encounter table in the DMG, but you can supplement that with tables for specific streets - so an encounter in the merchant quarter maybe has a 1 in 12 chance of being with a robbery in progress, while encounters by the waterfront have chances of pressgangs and so on. If the "special encounter" die doesn't come up, just use the normal general city table.

The more time the players are likely to spend in the city, the more time it's worth spending on tailoring the tables. And the more the players remain in the city the more you can interlock them with the people there, as the PCs annoy or befriend locals and become the objects of their own power games and struggles.

You should also look at Zak S' Vornheim supplement which is as good a book on running a city as you could ask for, although it's much better to get a printed copy IMO. I reviewed it at Dragonsfoot in more detail. You'll never run cities the same way again!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! Those are great tips. I'll definitely check out those supplements. \$\endgroup\$ – Colin Aug 20 '14 at 16:34

It might be worth focusing on developing bits of background (and associated plot elements and adventure hooks!) that can be expected to met at various parts of the city, for example:

  • the thieves guild, that is actually funded by the Coral Empire, for which it does spying and sabotage

  • the Brothers Of Brine, a cult located in the sewers, whose members will slip out at night to find the sacrificial victim designated by their Salt Oracle.

  • The city guard, of course

  • The Procession of Saint Gunther, comprised of priests, monks, beggars and devout townsfolk who carry the Holy Statue of Saint Gunther through the city every week, giving their blessings and asking for alms.

  • Lady Isabella and her suite - a royal carriage and many servants, suitors, clowns and guards going through the city as per Her Lady's whims.

  • People everywhere preparing for the great Cock-fighting contest.


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