Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Fantastic Cities

(Originally published on www.dragonlairdgaming.com)

Please accept these musings on cities in a fantasy campaign, inspired The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

I have always been fascinated by fantasy cities. Lankhmar, Haven, variations on Venice, Sanctuary, and many more. I was given The Lies of Locke Lamora by a friend and was introduced to another great city for adventuring, Camorr. Why is it so good? Gather ’round and let me tell you.

First, it is based on the familiar. There are canals and bridges, the nobility have a Venetian flavor, and most any fantasy adventure could fit here. There is a plague called the Black Whisper that returns from time to time. Glittering nobility with power over life and death walks alongside grinding, Dickensian poverty and social neglect. I love the flavor of Venice for fantasy cities with intrigue, thievery, chases along the canals, and much more. (One of my longest running campaign worlds is centered on my own version, a city called Ramal, which I may need to write up for DLG someday.)

Second, it also contains elements of the fantastic. Throughout the city are huge constructions of “Elderglass”, made by an ancient people long lost. Many of the bridges are Elderglass as well as several massive towers and other wonders around the city. After sundown the Elderglass glows for a few hours, providing a period of “false light” before real darkness. The glass appears in different colors and translucencies. Different pieces have other interesting properties. A city built around the ruins of something greater, something real, tangible and used every day, but whose secrets of construction are lost to time, is intriguing.

The author also introduces a pantheon of gods and goddesses that seem more like courtiers than divine beings. Each has their own order of priests executing prayers and blessings for their patron, notable in distinctive clothing and vows. Twelve are recognized openly, including Aza Guilla, The Lady of Long Silence, Dama Elliza, Mother of Rains and Reaping, and the Nameless Thirteenth, The Crooked Warden, patron of thieves.

Thieves fall in line to a mafia-style hierarchy, not the cliche “guild” system. Gangs run their small bits of the city, pay tribute to the boss who in turn keeps the authorities at bay.

There is a lot more flavor in the book that I won’t try to catalog here. Let’s just say that I hope the series takes off and I get to work on the RPG :). But flavor can be quickly lost as details. How do cities shape and effect game-play?

01. A city is a mass of people in a crowded place, giving the GM the ultimate flexibility of mixing all sorts of characters together and introducing just about anything. A diverse, fantasy city could even have humanoids walk freely, at least until they get into a brawl. Rich, poor, stupid, and wise are all there. The opportunity for gaining riches is high for those with the guts to take the chance.

02. There should be a lot of stimuli for the players. Even if they do nothing but float along, there should be festivals and gossip, crimes and punishments, thousands of stories going on without their intervention. Eventually, the city will hook the players with its claws, dragging them into adventures and intrigues. How you ask? Here are some examples:

  • The inn where the characters are staying is a friendly place. The PCs make some friends and then get asked by those friends to ‘help them out’. It could be a straight ‘gunslingers save innocent town’ type or these friendly innkeepers might be getting them embroiled into something much shadier.
  • The characters see how a local gang is taking over the neighborhood where they are staying. They can either resist the gang, avoid it, or join it. All three choices lead to interesting conclusions.
  • Wherever they spend money, earn money, or spend their time is the opportunity to make connections with people: friends, enemies, rivals, patrons, followers, even fans.
  • An event in the city applies to all of a certain race or class, selected to include at least one PC. The events could be internment on suspicion of espionage, a festival celebrating them, the arrival of a leader of their race/group, etc.

03. Be careful of the natural tendency for characters to want to split up in a city. By logic, splitting into two groups means getting twice as much done, but running them into threats which test them seriously should give them the idea that splitting the party isn’t always healthy. The degree of danger that simply walking the streets presents will also help them attune themselves. If you happen to be running a Play-by-Email game, you can handle character separation, but it compounds your work, so I’d use the same techniques to keep them together most of the time.

04. Every city should have a distinct personality. The last thing you want are cities that blur together and become a generic background for the player characters. Think of each city as its own personality, perhaps with mental problems. The character of the city will reflect the general population and its attitudes, view on life, etc. Here are a few examples.

  • The Stalwart Guardian: Set on the edge of the frontier, the city is serious business. Soldiers get respect and life can be a little harsh. Walls are well maintained and the garrison drills daily. There is little time for confections and frivolity, although hard drinking can be found. Not many visitors come to this city and those that do come are viewed with suspicion. Adventurers and opportunists abound so near the frontier
  • The Greedy Merchant: A trade city sitting on a fat trade route, everything here is about money. With coin, all things are possible. Its likely ruled by the commercial interests. The markets and bazaars are large and fascinating with goods from all ends of the trade routes. Military control of the city should always be in question, the threat of invasion real. There won’t be much kindness here, lots of thieves and people willing to swindle the wide-eyed new-comer.
  • The Dying Beggar: Many years ago, this place was a thriving city. Now it is shadows and emptiness, bordering on becoming a ruin… a beggar in the tattered coat of his once proud past. Perhaps the trade route moved or it became known for plague. Either way, there is little money here. The few people who are here are desperate. Humanoids might have moved in with no one strong enough to stop them.
  • The Happy Guildsman: A city growing on the crafts and exports of its artisans, perhaps beginning to be renown for its glasswork, weapons, magic, or other creations. Law and order are expected and while it is quiet, it just means that the darker things are behind closed shutters. Good place to learn a trade or hide.
  • The Devout Priest: This place is ruled by the gods, or at least by their hands on earth, the priests. Devotion and obedience are required through many laws and prohibitions. The sick and dying might come here seeking divine intervention. Others might flee desperate to escape the quiet human sacrifices.

05. Don’t make things too neat and tidy. Explain to the PCs how things are in the city when they get there, but keep the pace of change moving. The PCs shouldn’t feel like the only people making things happen in the city. But remember, the PCs are the heroes in their own tales so don’t overshadow them in the heart of their adventure.

Conclusion

Try running a city adventure sometime soon and see if you can get your players hooked on the ‘urban’ life.

2 Responses to “Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Fantastic Cities”


  1. amerigoV

    One interesting aspect to address is the size of the city. Fantasy campaigns have a tendency to have a huge city as its base – Grayhawk, Sharn, Waterdeep, Ptolus, etc. This gives the DM tons of options, but it also limits the PCs role in the machinations of the city. 5th level PCs in Sharn are nobodies. At best, perhaps one faction likes them and another does not. However, you move the center of the campaign to Stormreach, it is a whole different game. Stormreach is much smaller and intentionally set up as a microcosm of the main continent. If a DM and players so enjoy, 5th level PCs would be ensnared in all sorts of Byzantine plots.

  2. Jim Davenport

    Excellent point.