The Urban Adventure (Essay)

Author's Note:

Below is a sample from the book intended to be public and freely distributed for game designers, referees, or those in academia. This is in part to ensure that the more important aspect of the game design within the book is freely accessible, but also to pay homage to the OSR and DIY TTRPG blogs that continue to create and share for public enrichment.

The Urban Adventure

Buildings tower above, threatening to block out the sky; streets are filled with innumerable faces, changing in an instant; and a deafening sound surrounds you, shifting in pitch and tone but never subsiding. There is treasure and riches to be sure; ill gotten goods the Nobles hoard while the common folk starve around them. This is The City, a writhing beast that twists and coils around itself a thousand times over, to live upon its back is to fear it, lest you risk its ire and it devours you whole…

The city falls into an odd space as a destination for adventuring; it seemingly removes the dangers of starvation and exposure present in a wilderness setting, but has far more reactive and interactive parts than most dungeons. Additionally, food, shelter, and assistance are artificially kept away from the adventurers by extortive costs; a sadistic trick the city is all to willing to play.

It is a place that is intrinsically tied to the wealth of an adventuring party, allowing them to use that wealth to assist and protect them as well as interact with a myriad of characters and rivals that they will encounter every day of their journey.

These differences change the way players operate in the adventure cycle, as well as how Referees and Gamemasters need to run and record during a session. A city allows easier and expedited purchases of useful tools, goods, and hirelings, but is also limited by the times of day and complicated by the wealth level of the area.

The city is an environment wholly unto itself, with its own unique dangers and interesting perks. Adventurers used to a rural or underpopulated environment may find the differences awkward and overwhelming at first. However, those who can adapt will find riches beyond their wildest imaginations scattered throughout the sea of cobblestone streets.

Why a City?

The wilderness and dungeon are know for a certain level of sparseness. More often than not they are realms of quiet unease punctuated by moments of intense and calculated violence. There is mystery and uncertainty, but it all happens within a closed-off environment. A city is none of that, by default a city is a vibrant, decadent and raucous environment, just as willing to lash out or assist the adventurers at any given notice. It is a place of action and reaction, constantly moving and changing encouraging players to be quick-witted and reactive rather than slow and methodical. The moments of quiet and downtime are few and far between, becoming important moments to plan and prepare for the chaos of the following day.

In addition to this rapidity and chaos, the city also eschews the typical problems of a dungeon environment for things entirely unique to itself. Theft, wealth disparity, militarized security are constant hazards of the metropolis setting. While a dungeon seeks only to kill or expel you, a city has far more insidious dangers that target your wealth (theft, extortion, economic disparity), your legal status (angry guards, upset nobles), and even your basic necessities (price spikes, gated neighborhoods). While the city may not be willing to kill as brazenly as a dungeon, it is more than willing to inflict a slow and painful death on those who can’t keep up.

Since the dangers of the city are highly organized and reactive, remaining inactive so long as the adventurers follow the “rules” of the powers that be, this also means that they can be bargained with. The city, overflowing with life and social connections presents and opportunity for diplomacy and alliance usually not found within the typical adventure setting. Every burglar, guard, aristocrat, and politician has social ties that, if fostered and played, can keep the adventurers out of trouble or gain access to very useful boons. Be warned though, building a relationship with one faction in the open may cause another to look on disdainfully.

Wealth as Safety and Risk

While a city appears to have removed the risks of the wilderness such as roving creatures, starvation and exposure, it only does so at a cost. Money and credit is the single most important resource when adventuring within the limits of a city. Larger wealth will provide a level of comfort and safety, but that wealth will always be at risk and losing said wealth puts the adventurers into further danger.

Wealth is closely tied to the vitality and health of an adventuring party, since with wealth comes security. Food, lodging, tools, travel, the city is capable of providing any and all necessities of an adventuring party, so long as they are able to pay for it. A true metropolis (in the fantasy setting) is the closest thing adventurers will encounter to a post-scarcity area, with any good or service being available so long as they are willing to pay for it. The only thing that may prevent a party from having access to a good or service is if it is rare, illicit, or dangerous; in which case the particular good or service must be intentionally sought out or be prohibitively expense.

However, with wealth being so closely tied to security, loss of wealth and exorbitant prices represent a threat to the safety of the adventurers while they remain in the city. Food, shelter and protection are seen as commodities, not rights within the city, forcing adventurers to constantly seek out wealth or alternative ways of meeting basic needs. Muggings and thefts expound this threat, since everyone in the city is beholden to the danger poverty brings. In addition, wealthy areas with their excessive costs for even everyday goods become dangerous due to the fact that they drain excessive amounts of wealth from players so quickly; a meal and lodging may be unaffordable in a noble’s neighborhood, exposing players to starvation and a likely encounter on the street.

Reactive, Not Random, Danger

The city is a filled with all possible encounters, both hostile and benign. While there is certainly an impossible number of dangers and threats to the adventurers these threats do not manifest themselves randomly or without reason. Encounters in the city, unlike other adventuring settings, are a reaction to the adventurers’ actions and follow regular patterns that, if observed and planned around, can be avoided.

City encounters tend to follow a coherence and regularity that is not found in wilderness or dungeon settings. Unlike a dungeon, a city is brimming with possible encounters and life rarely seen in the sparse corridors or rooms that make up a dungeon complex. Unlike the wilderness, the encounters occur at regular enough intervals with common similarities throughout.

In addition an encounter on the streets is not necessarily a random event, rather it is the city taking a specific interest in the adventurers as a reaction to something they have done or failed to do. When the adventurers flash too much wealth, a thief might approach; when an estate is broken into, the guards are called; and when an aristocrat is feels they are being troubled, the Fists of the City arrive to expunge it. Most encounters follow this same reactive nature, serving their own interests and only bothering with the adventurers when those interests have been crossed.

Running the City

As a Referee or Gamemaster there are certain facets of a city adventure that have to be taken into account before and during a session.

Time – If strict timetables must be kept in a dungeon or wilderness setting, this is applied doubly so for a city adventure. Unlike the typical adventure where the timeline is based off of the adventurers (camp, rest, and downtime occur when the party says so) a city operates on its own timeline. Shops close, folks return home, and less savory folks travel under the cover of night; completely changing the tone, level of danger and access to services compared to the daytime. When the adventurers choose to do something or allot effort to it, the referee should record and announce how much time this will take making sure that the time of day is accounted for and nightfall not come as a surprise.

Access to Services – The key difference between a dungeon and the city is the constant access to tools, hirelings, and services. At any point of travel, downtime, or planning adventurers can buy what they need requiring little more than traveling a block or so to a market or shop. So long as they have the money and the thing they are looking to buy is not rare or illicit, the GM simply announces the amount of time it takes and how much it will cost. As noted previously, time of day may affect what services are available; while some shops and hirelings may be available during nightfall, it is likely they are harder to find and more expensive.

Cost – With wealth so intrinsically tied to survival and adventurers being able to purchase tools and services on the fly, the actual cost of items at any given time has to be taken into account. The book provides a table of prices for common goods and services (pg. Xxx) as well as the scale at which they increase based on the wealth level of the area (pg. Xxx). While wealthier neighborhoods may have access to rare commodities and hirelings, the quality of them does not change based solely on cost. After all, sometimes, things that are expensive are worse.

On to Adventure

The city is an interesting beast. On one hand, it plays by strict and uncompromising rules of law, conversely, it embraces a chaos that only a metropolis of millions of people can create. It reacts and changes based on the actions of the adventurers, allowing it to be exploited and subverted. So long as the great beast of the city is not riled it becomes a place of intrigue, exploit, decadence and delight. Just stay one step ahead of the powers that be…


Key Points

Common goods and services are available quickly and conveniently.

Danger is reactive and motivated.

Wealth is tied to security and safety.

Expensive areas are a danger to character’s wealth.