How to do an Urban Adventure

Urban adventures have always been my bête noire. Published urban settings are almost entirely ginormous books describing encounters on maps, with endless descriptions of shops, guard towers, mages’ guild halls, and sewers. You have to read the whole thing front to back to figure out what’s going on with NPCs and factions, and any actual adventures have nothing to do with what’s printed in the books. If there are separate published adventures that take place in the city, they usually describe things that were not described at all in the original book, because the book was published before the adventure, meaning to have a complete published edition, you might need to constantly flip between adventure and setting book, in order to get a complete picture of a given area.

I’m looking at you, City of Greyhawk Boxed Set, and the “Flames of the Falcon” you rode in on.

The alternative is to simply go the random route, a la Vornheim. You get a map, a series of very evocative and cool-ass tables, and are shoved out the door with that armor. You’re on your own, kid.

That’s one step above just winging it entirely, which is usually how I approach city adventures in my own games. But I came up with an idea I wanted to talk through a bit and bounce off of folks. I make no claims that this is a completely unique idea, but I don’t recall ever seeing it being done in this way before, so it’s at least original to me.

Imagine a cross between a traditional urban setting book and a “choose your own adventure” book.

This would look like a regular urban setting book, but the individual shop and other encounter descriptions would all plug into a matrix of 20-30 adventure plotlines that were going on in the city as well. This would give users the best of both worlds. On the one hand, the PCs would be able to explore the city randomly, wandering around looking for cool encounters and the like. Meanwhile, all around them would be revolving all manner of plots, the hooks to which would be described in the encounter text, but if the PCs weren’t following a particular plot, it might be irrelevant to their encounter.

It would also be able to accidentally involve oneself in the plots.

An example might be in order.

43. Rurik the map-merchant. Rurik’s small shop is a two-storey building; his living quarters on the second floor are accessible through a narrow staircase behind the counter. The shop itself is filled with scrolls, tanned hides, tapestries, and even some folio books, all of which contain maps of different regions, cities, continents, and so forth. There are quite a few treasure maps here as well. Rurik (gnome I4/T6) knows the whereabouts of all of his wares by rote, despite the seeming disorder. Some are completely bogus, while others are quite accurate. The maps sell for between 5 and 500 gp, depending on the quality and the subject matter. In the living quarters above, Rurik keeps his stash of 400 gp in various denominations of coins, plus a well-hidden box with 23 gems worth between 50 and 500 gp each.

Plot #9: Tabitha the barmaid at the Singing Griffon Tavern (#117) knows that Rurik has the only remaining copy of Mad Virnak’s treasure map. After denying knowing what it is, he will sell it for 250 gp.

Plot #14: Rurik is a member of the local Thieves Guild, and is sided with Wulf Bloodstone in his struggle against Guildmaster Turin. There is a 25% chance that two of Turin’s men will be here threatening Rurik to change sides.

Plot #19: Rurik is always looking for adventuring types to track down new wares for his shop. He will offer 25 gp each if they track down a copy of the Globe of Zizzak from the late cleric’s tomb (#56).

This presents three different aspects of the description-plus-plots idea. Plot #9 would come into play if the PCs picked up on that thread from the tavern, and had found their way here from Tabitha the barmaid. The next stop in that plot would be encounter #250. Plot #14 would only come into play if the PCs had gotten involved in the intra-guild conflict plot. If not, it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but there’s a % chance they could get involved mid-stream (and of course the DM could always override the dice and make sure the event happens). Plot #19 would start here, and send the PCs to encounter #56 to loot the tomb. What the next step would be, if any, would be found in that encounter description.

There would then be a separate section of the city book (or perhaps a different book) that had the paths of the various plots all collected. So you’d be able to follow the plots in-line, or be able to encounter them in situ, as the need demanded. A typical plot in the matrix would read thusly:

Plot #9: Mad Virnak’s treasure. Either the polka-dot mage (#200) or Ylvin the Sage (#233) will hire the PCs to locate the treasure. Barmaid in #117 leads to cartographer in #43. The map leads to key in cistern (#82), and treasure outside of town (#W14). If stolen, Red Meredor (#250) will attempt to steal it from the perpetrators, if known. If not, he will send out the word that he is willing to buy it for 500 gp (40% chance any random encounter from that point on is someone attempting to cash in).

In a print book, this would certainly work, but it sort of runs into the same problem as I complained about above. If you wanted to create new plot threads, you’re stuck with a separate book or books which would need to be consulted every time the PCs walked into a tavern that intersected a plot.

This is actually an instance where I would say that pdf would be superior to print. A pdf of the city book could be constantly updated as new adventures (plot threads) were written up. They could be included in the main book with relative ease, and the DM would just need to make sure he had the most recent version. All would work as intended.

You could get around it with leaving blank space to write in notes, or maybe boxes to refer to supplemental plot threads and encounter descriptions. But keeping it as a pdf would allow it to be constantly updated as new adventures are added to the matrix. The adventure matrix, by the way, would look like this:

I’m still working it out, but that’s a rough approximation of how it would look.

Thoughts? Has someone already done something this and I’m just unaware of it? I’m tempted to try it on a city in Greyhawk that was long promised, but never delivered, Wasp Nest, the City-State of Stoink (which is found in the Bandit Kingdoms, and which apparently featured somewhat prominently in Gary’s original campaign, as well as being one of the locations in the novel Saga of Old City):

Over at EnWorld, Gary said this of the place:

All of my notes and the Stoink map were purloined when Lorraine Williams took over TSR. Thus I am a loss to add anything, other than to say that I had much fun devising and having the PCs adventure in Stoink, “The Wasps’ Nest” as it were. The whole place was designed for felonious activity, double-dealing, and thuggery. It saddened me a lot to have to forget further development, as was the case with Shadowland and a couple of areas of the Flanaess I had hoped to see adventure modules in–the Rift, Scarlet Brotherhood, and the jungles of Hepmonaland in particular.

Sounds like it would be perfect for this sort of thing; lots of plots criss-crossing over one another, factions, skullduggery, and the like. Of course, if I were to do something inspired by that original, I’d probably call it Hornets Nest – the City-State of Scrum. I quite like that name, actually. 🙂

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.