GM Advice: 6 Reasons Urban Adventures Are Different

Urban adventures can be incredibly fun and a great change of pace. To successfully run an urban adventure, though, the GM must realise they are fundamentally different to wilderness or dungeon adventures…


In my Borderland of Adventure – after over two years of game play – we began our first major urban adventure. We’d done small, side trek urban adventures before but this was the first adventure in which the PCs would have to explore an entire town! In preparation for the adventure, I considered exactly how urban adventures are different to “normal” adventures. Here’s what came up with:

  1. Law & Order: Urban settlements almost always have a watch or guard. They always have laws the PCs must follow (or risk getting into serious legal difficulties). Many settlements have laws about citizens wandering about town heavily armed and armoured which affects the combat capabilities of most groups. Murder, theft and arson – features of many dungeon delves – are likely also frowned upon. This means the PCs may have to use different tactics to achieve their goals.
  2. Help & Hindrance: Many vested interests lurk in a town. The thieves’ guild may not take kindly to the PCs poking around an abandoned manor while the city watch might welcome any help the PCs can offer in solving a spate of grisly murders. Similarly, a range of faiths and powerful personages may help or hinder the PCs in their quest.
  3. Spellcasting & Services: The PCs have ready access to a range of services they wouldn’t normally be able to use in a dungeon. They will be able to hire spellcasters, shop for items (both magical and mundane) they suddenly need and so on. This is a great boon to the hard-pressed adventurer.
  4. Home: If the adventure takes place in a PC’s home town, he’ll have much more knowledge of the locality. He’ll also likely have a vested interest in completing the adventure. In a home town, the PC will also have a support network of friends and family he can call on. Such individuals can be a source of material aid as well as being excellent sources of information.
  5. Go Anywhere: The PCs can literally go anywhere and visit hundreds of locales. The GM must be far more prepared – or excellent at ad-libbing details of places and people.
  6. Different Challenges: Urban adventures are less likely to deal with the traditional types of adventures – the kind of adventures where you kick the door down and kill everyone inside. Instead, they’ll probably require more role-playing and investigation to complete successfully. That’s not to say there won’t be combat – there almost certainly will – but there’ll be less than normal.

Help Fellow GMs

Do you consider other factors when designing or running an urban adventure? If you do, share them in the comments below and help your fellow GM’s build better urban adventures!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

20 thoughts on “GM Advice: 6 Reasons Urban Adventures Are Different”

  1. It will likely come as no shock to you when I say that I manage this in much the same manner as I do a megadungeon: draw a graph.

    (Meta-level: join the cities)

    Highest-level, identify the wards/quarters/neighborhoods, and how they relate. High-level description of their nature, purpose, and general content. May include some notable landmarks and the like that might be known outside the ward, but no real detail.

    “Nob Hill: where the nobility and wealthy — not the same thing — live and look down upon the rest of the city and inhabitants. Adjacent to and access to the royal quarter (upper end), artisan district (lower end), and temple district (the reputable bits, thank you); no immediate access to the city walls, travel from outside to Nob Hill often involves a parade of sorts to show off power and wealth. Damme Eloire’s manse is located here, and Duke Waite, Colonel of the Royal Cavalry lives up there.” Include some general flavor (“large townhouses to the west, tightly-packed; the most powerful families have small manors with a small estate (an acre or two perhaps) in the east. Streets are kept clean, both of refuse and of riffraff”). Do this for each ward.

    Next level, identify some of the smaller landmarks and major entities (including key locations and people) and how they’re connected. Start noting some details and hooks. Some of the links between nodes will cross ward boundaries, just as they might in the megadungeon as you drill down. The hooks and details may start to identify specific internal tensions and plots.

    Drill down further if you need, identifying and expanding on the specific locations on an as-needed basis, plus perhaps a few generic places for use as needed. For instance, in the Artisan’s Quarter you might outline in detail a few particular shops of critical importance to your game (if not your city) that you expect the PCs to visit, and a handful of arbitrary places they might drop into.

    Unlike the megadungeon, though, many of the connections are likely to be social or informational, rather than physical. That is, the megadungeon constrains movement by having massive amounts of stone in the way. Here, it’s not that you couldn’t just walk there… but more than you 1. need to know that you have to go there, and 2. have the clout or special information needed to get there… and you likely can’t just bull your way through by killing everything in your path.

    1. Keith, thanks for the advice. My first impression is that it is practical and is going to be useful as I work on the changes that happen to a city that exists in my world.

      1. As I may have mentioned, I find this sort of technique is broadly useful in campaign and scenario design.

        In fact, that’s the name of the category in my Hall of Fame at my blog — “Campaign and Scenario Design“. Though I admit the blog posts really should be reviewed and revised. Perhaps after I’ve got Polyhedral Pantheons out.

        Working at an abstract level and drilling down has proven to be really a convenient framework for me. The high-level design followed by increasingly detailed development works wonderfully. It gives an opportunity to get the structure and relationships right, then works down in increasingly greater detail, reasonably certain that it still makes sense.

        I don’t remember the last time I wrote myself into a corner.

  2. Patrolling guards carry magic sticks in my campaign where they tap them to teleport in extra higher level help if outclassed. Keeps the PCs from rampaging and humbled when in large city environments.

  3. This is basically what I fill out with minimum detail:

    Environment – (ex a shanty, an open field, a gypsy encampment, a cave, a castle)
    Hook – (something that is going on that might interest the characters)
    Treasure – (some reward that might be gained if the characters interact with that hook)
    Encounter – (conflict or challenge that should be overcome)
    Random factor – wildcard – anything that might make the whole thing stand out.

    If the players need a specific NPC, I already have a stack of them I can pull at random (there are tons of online resources for this)

    if the players want to fight, I can theatre of the mind it. – if it get complicated, I can “randomly generate” an encounter with any number of maps available online.

    Fortress of Forbiddance
    Environment – Extremely High security Prison Complex, Roamed by ghost clerics, guarding an ancient lich king and many other things
    Hook – White hat peaceful mages/clerics here are always looking for tasks the players can do to help them out – interested in keeping populace restful
    Treasure – special incense – lot of people like it, calms foks down.
    Encounter – Prison break!
    Random factor – Unicorns that patrol the grounds

    Mutiply that by locations and interconnections (Mafia at the Docks are planning a prison break, or the incense could be used to calm down the Wyvern that guards the Spirit Bridge) and that’s pretty much what i will roll with, I have no idea if the PC’s will pull on this thread or not, but I’ve usually got a few others. Right now I have a city with only ten nodes and that’s quite a bit of exploring.

    1. This reminds me, the Dresden Files game (Fate-based, from Evil Hat) has a section on ‘city building’. I’m not sure how I forgot, it had a direct effect on how I designed my entity template.

      Each city has theme (long-standing descriptions or definitions, one to three) and threats (specific challenges faced by the city or its inhabitants). They also have locations, specific places of interest (that can be nested, as I have in my ‘city graph’). Each of these elements (theme, threat, and location) has ‘faces’, characters that represent them and make it easy to interact with them.

      1. Thanks for the link, Keith. That’s quite a handy summary that could be applied to almost anything! Like all really useful tools, it’s simple but does exactly what it needs to do.

        1. I’m glad you like it, Creighton. In fact, I do use that template for almost everything 🙂

          Creatures? Certainly. Places? Oh yes, the entire node-based megadungeon was done using this template. Magic items? The fantastic creations from the RPG blog carnival were done using this template.

          I find I have to tweak it a little here and there, but overall it amounts to “what is it? why do I care about it? why do others care about it? how do I know I’m looking at it or that it was here?”

          The actual mechanics are the boring part to me.

  4. I’m running an urban adventure at the moment with the group trying to take over the town. This article is spot on. I sent them on an out of town quest last session for my sanity.

  5. Add in collateral damage. I have had players get in a bar fight. Then get upset with me when the guards arrest them for 3 burnt down buildings. Spamming Fireball has consiquences.

    Consequences. In a town your things see you act and spread word. Helping town guard may anger the thieves guild. And vice versa. Slap a granny and her adventuring grandson confronts the party.

  6. The map. Every city is much more well received if there is a map by many players. Even if the map.merely shows districts and the roughest outline of the shape of the city… It gives the idea of how the streets may twist, how the scenery will change from one block to the next…

  7. I think the magic Shop is the goofiest thing ever in fantasy role playing games. I am unaware of any fantasy books stories where magic is so plentiful that there is a walmart to buy and sell. I get that I am probably more low fantasy than most but why go into the dungeon. Why not just rob he olde magic shoppe. I think it cheapens magic. Even if your a DM handing out magic like candy on Halloween I would assume that your players are special adeventurers and it isn’t that plentiful to everyone. I agree with all your comments but I have never and will never have a magic shop exist in my world. Magic is rare and special in my world it’s very rare. No after what world we have I can’t imagine a fantasy world where magic has been cheapened so much it has it’s own shop. Coupons? Two for Tuesday’s? Come on. We can do better.

    1. I agree, mostly. My campaign has a few ‘magic shops’ that sell common spell components and the like, possibly some low power rings or amulets, but I’ve ever only placed one ‘retailer’ of magic items. This was a well-fortified wizard’s tower; an audience with the wizard is by appointment only.

      I introduced the tower in a side game with two thieves who were looking for someone to identify a pair of magic rings they’d, uh, found.

  8. Urban adventures are also different because of the social connections between NPCs. Word of the PCs can spread through these connections in a way that word of their deeds in wildernesses and dungeons never could. In an urban setting, reputation is everything and may be even more valuable than coins when considering what opportunities and information are available to the PCs.

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