On Cities, Part II

Arclight, the city outside Numenhalla
I mentioned yesterday that our concerns are with organic actions. What that means is, what are the players going to ask do, and how are you going to handle it? If you combine your plot hooks and ideas with this, it should create emergent gameplay in the same way that occurs inside a sandbox or megadungeon.

Let's take a look at some procedures that are of use in a urban environment.


For towns of less than 1,000 people, or cities the characters have lived in for at least 6 months, navigation can be hand-waved. If coming across a thorp or hamlet, the map of the area can just be handed to the players. It is very likely every building will be visible from the town square. For villages and small towns, a map of the areas of town and places of interest can be handed out and the players can just choose where to go.

Medieval Demographics made Easy notes that city population density is approximately 38,850 people per mile. Obviously as you move up through larger towns and small cities, the population will still be solidly contained in an area easily viewed. However, much like actual cities, towns, and college campuses, after a certain arbitrary threshold things become less straightforward then "I go to the armory."

Part of this next bit comes from the disconnect between how real people act and the inhuman and unrealistic expectations players have for how their characters behave. The classic example of "We always walk in formation, never more than 10 feet apart for 20 miles a day" is an assumption made only by someone who's never actually moved that far in a group.

The first thing that happens when you enter a new town or go for a walk is that everyone immediately gets distracted. Someone is looking in a store window, someone else is petting a dog. Another person is reading a map. Science forbid you spend the night somewhere. In the morning someone will want a bath. Breakfast will take twice as long. Someone will be busy in their room.

What this means, is at that arbitrary threshold (10,000 people) a game system should come into play to determine how long it takes to reach the desired destination.

Procedure: Navigation 
Roll your applicable skill. The degree of success indicates how long it takes you to find your destination.
I generally use "Survival (Urban)" in my B/X games, 3.5 uses "Gather Information", in 5e I used "Intelligence (Investigation)". The rolls have five outcomes:

  • Failure: You spend all day looking and don't find what you're looking for.
  • Minimal Success: You spend 2d4 hours looking till you find it.
  • Success: You spend 1d6 hours looking till you find it.
  • Great Success: You spend 1d4 hours looking till you find it.
  • Superb Success: You find it in 1 hour.
To elaborate, in 5e, an investigation roll of 5 or less is failure, 5+ is minimal success, 10+ is a success, 15+ is a great success, and 20+ is a superb success. In particularly dangerous cities, alien or hostile towns (town of the thri-kreen) or other unusual circumstances such as not speaking the language, I'd increase these target numbers by 5. 
What this involves is reading maps, asking for directions, talking to people, looking around, and getting to your destination. It assumes stopping for food, using the restroom, being wary against thieves, noting the local sights, fending off beggars and commoners, and various other distractions and mishaps, the notable ones dictated by the random encounter rolls. 
Of course, random encounter checks are made each hour, and the flavor of these encounter tables define the character of the city.


Most early and pre-medieval economies ran on barter. Dungeons & Dragons is assumed to run on a money or coin based economy which is much more modern. The issue then becomes, what do we do when the players want to buy or sell something?

In 80%+ of cases the answer is, just give them the book price and make the transaction go as quickly as possible. The condition which alters this is if the player is buying or selling a valuable quantity of goods. It could be valuable due to its rarity, such as a rare art object or gem, its legal status, its quantity, or because of the skill required to make it. 

Some examples:
  • A suit of chain mail: no
  • 1,000 suits of chain mail: yes
In cities or larger (50,000+) markets and auction houses can handle the sale of rare goods, such as high value art object or basic magic items. Rare magic items, or any basic magic item or high-value art object in a smaller city will require locating a buyer first. 

All of these are situational and require adjudication from the Dungeon Master. A good guideline is if it costs more in gold then the population, they probably don't have a buyer. This decision right here is the crux of this procedure. You decide based on the city and particular circumstance of the sale.

Since what they will have or wish to sell may vary, you will generally need to answer these questions on the fly:
  • Is there somebody to buy their goods?
  • Is there a market to buy their goods?
Procedure: Locating a Buyer 
An applicable skill check is made. On a success, a buyer is located. The skill check used may vary on the method used to locate a buyer. In a city (50,000+) B/X a basic reaction roll may be used with a difficulty of 9+. In 5th edition Intelligence (Investigation) with a Difficulty of 20 will suffice as noted in the 5th edition Dungeon Masters Guide. In Skills: The Middle Road, the difficulty should be 6 or 7 depending on the size of the area you are looking. Larger cities may lower the difficulty, smaller cities will raise the difficulty.
The amount of time it takes to find a buyer varies on the value of the item. An item worth tens of gold takes 1d4 days. Hundreds of gold takes 1d6. Thousands of gold takes 1d10, tens of thousands of gold takes 2d8. hundreds of thousands of gold takes 3d12. Once a buyer arrives, use the haggling procedure to negotiate the sale price. 

However, what is available in the town is a different question. These are questions you can generally answer ahead of time.
  • Is there a specific restriction or absence of types of goods?
  • Are there any special crafts-people who can make items for the players?
  • What magic items are available to the players in town?
Once this question is answered, there's the question of how much can the players actually get the item for?

Procedure: Haggling 
Each merchant has a multiplier. You get this by rolling a d4 and a d10. These create a decimal number between 1.0 and 4.9. This is the modifier the merchant offers to sell or buy goods at. 
Lets say Frank the merchant has a 2.5 modifier and is selling or buying platemail to 2nd level 5e fighter Dave. Plate mail in 5e costs 1,500 gold piece. Since Dave is only 2nd level, plate mail is a significant enough purchase to qualify for valuable.  Frank will offer to buy a used set of plate mail for 750 / 2.5 = 300 gp. Frank will offer to sell the plate mail for 1,500 x 2.5 = 3,750 gp. Obviously the players will blow a gasket. Enter haggling. Players state the desired price for purchase. Characters make a reaction roll. In early D&D this is a 2d6 roll modified (+/-1) by Charisma. In 5e, this is a D20 roll modified solely by Charisma.

2 On a Critical Failure the merchant becomes offended and refuses to sell to the player
3-5 On a Failure, the merchant refuses to budge and ends the haggling
6-8 On a Success, the merchant moves towards the players price by 10%.
9-11 On a Superb Success, the merchant moves towards the players price by 25%
12 On a Critical Success, the merchant agrees to the players price.

In 5e, these thresholds are a roll of 1, less than 5, 5 to 15, 15+, and 20.
Each time the player rolls again, they must offer a new price, and the Dungeon Master must find this price reasonable. A player offering 400 for plate, and then offering 401 would not get a new roll. What is a reasonable increase is subjective, but is on par for the amount the merchant is moving on each of his turns. Making a very low offer once (say increasing by less than 10% the cost of the good) might be passable, but it might offend the merchant if done more than once. 

It is, in point of literal fact, a negotiation. The whole table can provide consensus on what is reasonable.

Hack & Slash 
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1 comment:

  1. I know this isn't directly related to this post, but I am incidentally preparing a city for my PCs at the moment and thought I might add that in general cities are a game space that invites adventure. By that I mean there are many seeds for adventures in a city, so as a DM they are good places to spread, extend and begin new adventures, even small ones. I'm finding that every NPC, shop owner, or security guard I write could lead to another adventure, or interesting exploration for the PCs. Just as they are good beginning places for PCs, they are also good ending places; so when they're done with an adventure outside of town and want closure on it, going to town to sell treasure, turn in the bad guy or reveal to authorities what they've learned helps complete their experience.


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