On Reader Mail, Cities and Encounter Design

Hey Courtney,

Only just started GMing (well, probably 9 months ago now) and really enjoyed your articles on Adventure and Set Design. They've really broadened my perspective on player agency and allowed me to plan–and most importantly, play–more efficiently and effectively.

Planning linear encounters seems simple, especially the way you do it. I also find planning the power and time structures fairly simple, because these are things that humans already plan with flowcharts and timetables.

What I'm finding most clumsy is planning sandboxy space structures. With dungeons and hexcrawls, this is pretty simple; use a map, code the rooms with numbers. But how do you plan towns, or huge cities? Specifically, how do you label/annotate such structures?

Is there something I'm missing? Please help!


Hi Kalle. This is surely a sticky wicket. I have been thinking very hard about this problem.

Unlike dungeons which, as you note, have received a high degree of development, cities have few representations at all, much less highly iterated or developed ones.

There have been some notable examples though. Early examples include the encounter tables for City-state of the invincible overlord and city encounters in the Judges Guild ready reference pages. (Neither is available for purchase, Rob Conley explains why here.)  Having used these encounter tables, you're equally likely to run into a petty god or a king as opposed to your average peasant. On the other end of the spectrum is nearly 700 page Ptolus campaign setting which, in true 3.5 style leaves little to the imagination. There's were books from judges guild on villages, each containing a page map along with certain basic information about the city. One of the best of the old supplements is Cities by Midkemia press. And TSR made numerous entries into city supplements during second edition, notably Lankhmar (and little else). The adventures involving Lankhmar are of the standard 2nd edition type and can be easily ignored.

Then there's the dry tournament early Gygax style of T1 and B2, where the settlement is described in exhaustive detail, and actual relevant information is hidden within pages listing the value of bedspreads, curtains, and hidden treasure in niches. Let's not forget the literal hundreds of supplements describing inns, city sections, specific cities, districts and more.

The Key
It's about purpose. What's a dungeon there for? Looting! Danger! Adventure! Cities are less simple.

Cities are literally a word for where citizens gather and build things. Along comes the whole of human nature: drama, politics, power struggles, oppression, opportunity, families, children, light and darkness–The whole of the human condition. Combine that with the character motivations in the game and how in the hell do you notate that?!

There are different purposes that cities serve. The purpose of a city changing over time is what makes city notation so difficult.

The first is a base, a place where adventure does not occur. This is not well suited for adventure campaign play. It sets up walls the players don't expect to be there, it breaks verisimilitude and removes a lot of options from play. It is well suited for megadungeon play. The base is represented excellently by a menu style, allowing the players to quickly access whatever they need to get on with the play of the game.

Another purpose cities serve is discovery. These are cities and villages stumbled upon while traveling or hex-crawling. They provide a safe place to rest with some risk or unknowns involved. Generally  characterized by a single major feature or two, and have one or two issues or quests the players can get involved in.

A city can be an adventure site. These are the Gygax styled Homlettes, forts on borderlands, and Phandelvers. They are visited multiple times, with resources and adventure sites contained within. They work best in traditional sandboxes. In a larger, more complicated city, point crawls are useful to avoid spending all that time mapping out non-interesting areas. The travel in a larger city is more risky, lending support to that point crawl random encounter style.

And like all campaigns, each of these can change over time. So you might start with an area being one type of site and it might grow and change into another, necessitating a change or expansion in the way in which you've keyed it.

Other Factors

There are other things to keep in mind. There are no cell phones, no maps, no cars, no useful information sources on what's around the next corner. That means for anything beyond a small village or hamlet, travel within the city can be difficult. A city the size of Phandelver doesn't have this problem. You can stand in the center and in a few minutes know what each building or place is. But when you get much larger, travel time, dangers, and information can be unknown.

Imagine being dropped into Chicago on foot in a random place with no maps, narrower streets and no cars. There's no public police force and no easy way of contacting the guard. How many buildings are locked? Where can you rest? How threatening are your environs? You come off as an outsider, and unless you are in the appropriate section of the city will likely be treated badly by the locals.

Large cities, really large cities of the Baldur's Gate, Invincible Overlord, or Waterdeep type are not places you can just hop out your door and head to your destination. I've found that the Judge's Guild type encounter tables along with urban skill rolls to determine travel time rather useful in this regard. I wouldn't bother with mapping such large cities, except in the broadest and most general way.

Small and medium sized cities can be handled much like mini-hexcrawls with broad background maintained, but exploration and contents determined randomly as they explore local and distant neighborhoods. The shared discovery and mapping of uncharted territory can be a fun exercise, as long as players have pre-existing goals. 


There is still a lot of work to be done in this area. I suggest checking out a few of the works linked above for rough ideas about how to generate and key cities as adventure sites. (I am not affiliated with any of the products, nor receive any revenue from their purchase). I recently completed a work covering many of these topics, which you can get here: On Downtime and Demesnes

Figure out what the purpose of your city is and then figure out what information you need to minimally generate in order to make the situation fun for your players. 

This reader mail was originally published on 8/8/16. If you like these posts, consider supporting me on Patreon.  
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