Cough, cough, cough. Man, a lot of dust builds up when you don't visit here often enough. Hopefully, I'll have more time to devote here soon, but for now, 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:
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.
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.
Try running a city adventure sometime soon and see if you can get your players hooked on the 'urban' life. Jim Davenport