Dark and wicked cities are great settings for fantasy roleplaying game adventures, as you can quickly change between exploration, combat and roleplaying.
Many adventures start and end in a city. This is where adventurers restock their supplies and do research, meet contacts and old enemies return with an ambush. Cities are dens of deceit, betrayal, secrets, and lies – in short possibly the most dangerous of all adventuring environments for fantasy roleplaying games.
City adventuring is vital to creating a dark fantasy filled with intrigue and betrayal because that is where you find the most people. More people means more deception, which is the stuff of legends.
The city fulfills the same basic elements for roleplaying game setting as the starting areas, and you need to check a couple of boxes when you design your fantasy adventure city.
This quickly gives us some topics to consider:
- The Home Base
- Preparing City Adventures
- City Districts
- The Characters of the City
- The Dark Secrets of the City
- Dungeons Below the City
- Random Events
The Home Base
Civilization… ancient and wicked.
(Conan the Barbarian, 1982)
A city that serves as a hub for adventures must also serve as a home base, so prepare some options for whenever the players ask for any of the following:
- Stores. Adventures will want to trade in their hard-won treasure into gold, restock and possibly upgrade their gear.
- Mentors. The characters may need specialized training or knowledge as they increase in power. Make sure knowledge is available as you design your city, or the characters will want to leave your city sooner than anticipated.
- Research. Clever adventurers need to prepare as they face increasingly powerful opponents. Major topics for adventurers includes history, geography, religion, and magic.
Preparing City Adventures
An adventure hub must cater all of Dungeon and Dragons’ three pillars of adventure: roleplaying, exploration and combat.
Which makes the city appears like a perfect adventuring environment as you can effortlessly switch between all three modes in any back-alley or tavern in the same encounter or scene.
Cities offer many options for the characters, and developing a city adventure invites a fair bit of railroading. This not necessarily a bad thing, but railroading is not required.
If you prepare for improvisation – keeping lists of names of NPCs and places, a few alley ambushes and tavern brawls and a handful of quarrelsome NPCs – you have the basic building blocks of a city adventure.
If you also actually have a plot and a city-based dungeon you will check all the boxes for a great adventure.
City Districts and Landmarks
I usually begin with five major landmarks when I start developing a new city for my fantasy setting.
First of all, these landmarks will be evident at first glance and establish the city as somewhere special. For example, how could you make Courcant come alive and not mention the Jedi temple and the Senate building?
Second, the landmarks add a sense of space to any descriptions will make the place feel real. For example: “You walk down the Red Coin Avenue, past the Crimson Sword Tavern, and arrive at the God of Light Cathedral.”
So when they later describe “you cross the Red Coin Avenue and head down the Market Street towards the harbor,” you have created a place with locations relative to each other and perhaps sowed the first seed of familiarity.
Just remember to give the places proper names, as names build character.
- The Harbor and/or Caravan District.
- Central Market.
- The Noble District.
- Craftsman’s District.
- Merchant’s District.
- Foreign Quarter.
- The Slums.
- The ruler’s castle or the government building.
- The city’s highest tower.
- Up to three significant temples or cathedrals.
- A couple of inns and taverns.
- The most notorious tavern in the city.
- The city’s worst neighborhood.
This gives me a sense of the city, and I can better improvise questions from the players. Some are also obviously visuals and will create imagery in the minds of the players. Both improve the game.
The Characters of the City
City adventures have some usual suspects, each with their own palette of hang-ups and complications.
- The city ruler.
- The city guards.
- The innkeeper.
- Government officials.
- The leading religious leader.
- A crime boss.
- The most powerful local wizard.
The City Ruler
There are at least two takes on the city ruler. You can view the city rulers as the most important person in the community, the one who decides everything, and is the beginning and end of everything right or wrong in the city.
Alternatively, the ruler is unimportant, as the ruler cannot be everywhere at all times, and the daily tasks are in the hands of others regardless, leaving the nominal ruler insignificant.
You decided what is correct for your game. I believe both are correct, but with strong leanings to the latter.
Random Ruler’s Motivation
The ruler has an agenda of course, although its relevance may be disputed.
- The ruler is good, just and has a firm hand on city government.
- The city councilors have taken over. The ruler is well-meaning, but lack the will, ability or health to see it through.
- Jaded indifference has governed the city for years. The ruler has no connection to the real world, perhaps broken by personal loss or isolation.
- The ruler only cares about personal wealth and power and perhaps securing the family claim on the city.
- Things are bleak. The ruler is lost to darkness and madness, which may or may not be known to the population.
The city guards can be patrons, villains or an obstacle. First, the city guard many need reinforcements for a particularly dangerous assignment and need some expendable heavy-hitters.
Second, the city guard may be corrupt, or at least misguided, and in fact be the villain of the adventure. This adds difficulty to the experience, as the characters do not know who to trust, and collateral damage will not be accepted. Only careful roleplaying and research will lead to success.
Which leads us to the final consideration: the characters may wish to avoid the city guard as much as possible to keep questions and collateral damage to a minimum. Swift feet and glib tongues are required, providing plenty of roleplaying opportunities.
Random City Guard Secrets
- Control of the City Guard is contested, all the major factions pay-off the various officers, and some have even more than one secret patron. Dealing with the law always means dealing with one or another faction in the city.
- A secret fellowship of city guard captains and their allies is preparing a coup in the city.
- The city guard is biased toward a particular religion, ethnicity or district. The law is not equal for everybody.
- The city guard is in possession of a dangerous artifact, one that possibly could destroy the city, and inevitably ruin the city ruler. A close group of captains are wrestling with how to handle it, and keep it secret. Undoubtedly this is corrupting the city guard.
Councilors, City Officials, and Bureaucrats
The characters may rub shoulders with the government at any point of their careers, beginning as lowly agents running errands, and up to contenders of the crown and possibly the new rulers.
The middle-management, the councilors, city officials and bureaucrats, remain the constant at all levels, and like any other NPC, they have their own secrets and agendas.
Random Councilor Secrets
- The councilor is in debt and is desperate to keep this a secret and settle it.
- Childhood trauma has led to deep-rooted hatred of certain factions of the city, and the councilor has secretly worked to get revenge since becoming an adult.
- The councilor has criminal ties, and the city ruler knows and benefits from this. It keeps things moderately civil if no lawful and just.
- The councilor has strange and dangerous religious beliefs, and a religious cult has influence beyond the popular opinion in the city.
What are the major religions in the city, and are any of them outlawed, and if so, for what reason? Is merely being “evil” sufficient, and what does that even mean? Big questions all, and leaves you with some significant players in your city once answered.
Random Religous Agendas in the City
- One of the churches wants to convert the city ruler and exile the other churches. The city can then join the Crusade.
- Stage a coup and convert the city to a church domain under the direct rule of the church. The other churches are allowed to remain only if they submit to the One True God.
- The blasphemies of the city have been tolerated long enough and need to be cleansed, by any mean necessary.
- One of the churches faces a crisis of belief and withdraw from the world. This causes confusion and some believe there is something more going on, and blame the ruler and the other churches. Only a spark is required to create a full-fledged rebellion.
Crime can be many things: extortion, petty theft, fraud, trafficking, sex trade, and assassinations. All thrive in the dark underground and gilded halls of the city.
You would do well to prepare a few names for gangs, thieves’ guilds and crime bosses for your fantasy city. They will appear later as protagonists, informants, and even patrons for later adventures.
Random Crime Plots
- Crime is getting out of hand, and the ruler and the city guard is cracking down on the petty crime in the city. Yet, a series of threats and murders, disloyal civil servants, scheming nobles and unhinged cultists make the war on crime on difficult. Some even say this is a ruse.
- A new struggle for territory and influence is ramping up, and there is high demand for new blood. Fear of betrayal grow in the dark corners of the city, and leaders are more likely to lash out, provoked or not. It is a time of gold, blood, and opportunity.
- A new group of criminals has appeared, preparing a heist. The established crime families and thieves’ guilds are unhappy about this, yet there is an influx of wealth coming into the underworld as common thugs and con artists perform all sorts of odd tasks for the unnamed newcomers. Something big is happening, and no one knows what.
- One of the crime bosses are trying to go legit, but crime pays better, and the boss keeps relapsing. This causes all sort of confusion and has shifted the balance in the city, and the situation is on the verge of escalating.
- The leading crime boss in the city is becoming the only criminal of note in the city and is eyeing actual rulership as the next step. Is a city run by actually thieves possible, as opposed to the thieves usually running the city?
- The God of Thieves has sent an emissary or prophet to the city, to both test the Faithful, and to play a prank on the city ruler. This will be a lesson for all, although may not be noticed unless you pay close attention.
Powerful wizard residing in the city are noteworthy figures, regardless if they want it or not. A wizard may be vulnerable at close quarters, but may yet turn the tables in the city if made an enemy. Powerful attack spells, charms, and divinations are equally dangerous is used carefully. The crime lords, the cults, the churches and noble houses all crave the support of wizards, and many wizards themselves choose to become players in the city. What about the insane wizards, or those who prefer to keep their powers hidden? Some religions even brand wizard practice as evil, or at least too dangerous to allow, and hunt them down whenever possible.
Random Wizardly Plots and Complications
- Wizards using their arcane sight and supernatural senses detect faint auras of necromancy, charms, and bindings designed to alter the city.
- A wizard is scaring the city folk with wild tales of the growing threat of a returning Enemy, and seek companions to deal with it.
- Two wizards, or factions of wizards, are at each others’ throats. The disagreement is currently civil, but many fear it will escalate. The city’s inquisitors and demon hunters are watching closely.
- A group of foreign wizards seeks to establish a new guild in the city. Many of the city’s established factions look upon the newcomers with skepticism.
The Dark Secrets of the City
The dark heart of the city is a secret. A secret some will lie, kill, and go to war for. A city needs dark secrets to serve your adventuring needs. Read any three Batman comics if you are in doubt, then return to the drawing board. Your adventures require a city, and your city needs its dark secrets to cast long shadows.
Random Dark Secrets
- The current line of rulers was broken, and the current ruler has no real claim on the city. The city would collapse into chaos if the secret got out, and there are missing evidence. Church records, odd letters from past rulers, unsolved murders, and even divinations from seers, all points to the lies of the established government.
- The city founders committed genocide on the past settlers in the area, and the old mass graves are somewhere at the city’s roots. The following generation covered up this fact and even cast the blame on neighboring cities. New evidence would break alliances, destroy trade relations and perhaps topple the current government.
- The rise of the demon lord draws closer, and closer examination of a city map may reveal that the layout of the city actually is a binding rune. What does this mean, and what would happen if the rune is destroyed? A secret society in the city as sworn to protect this secret, and will sacrifice anything and anyone to maintain status quo.
The Depth of the City
Below the city lie the restless bones of the past: ritual sites, catacombs, dungeons of vile cults, thieves’ hideouts and mage’s vaults. Cities are often built on the ruins of older cities, layers upon layers with dread and despair, and these bones of centuries past hide countless secrets of the past.
It does not have to be a vast mega-dungeon, all you need is space for just one more forgotten chamber, vault or crypt to keep the game going.
City Dungeon Entrances
- The sewers have hidden tunnels and entrances.
- A trapdoor from an inn’s basement.
- The secret basement of a noble’s mansion leads further down into the deep below the city.
- A secret tunnel to the government building.
The Dungeons Below the City
- The Sewers. The sewers can provide dwellings for the poor and downtrodden, but are dangerous and can serve as monster lairs.
- Secret Tunnels. Past rules have constructed secrets chambers and tunnels below the city, some now forgotten, for secret storages, hidden pathways, and escape tunnels. These tunnels are trapped and guarded by constructs and hides the dirty secrets of the city’s rich and powerful. Other, even more clandestine, users of the tunnels may also exist.
- Thieves’ Dens. A thieves’ guild has several safehouses connected to the city sewers, the harbor (if a coastal city), tavern basements and old city houses.
- Lost Catacombs. The forgotten and abandoned burial sites of past residents lie below the city.
- Forgotten Temple Dungeons. Parts of now forgotten and abandoned temples still exist below the city, and serve as safe houses, meeting place and ritual sites for secretive and often evil cults.
- Wizard’s Sanctum. Many wizards build below ground strongholds, sometimes below their towers, to hide and secure their hidden libraries, alchemical labs, and treasure vaults. The wizards also need absolute controlled environments for their binding chambers.
You find the darkest terrors and most significant treasures in the deepest places under the city.
Grand finales do not happen overnight so it may pay off to think about endgame dungeons even as you set out to design a new city. These locations hold the cities darkest and oldest secrets and are the kind of places that may be lynchpins in conspiracies and world-changing events. Endgame dungeons work best if introduced early, then foreshadowed and layered throughout the campaign, until you have a compelling climax waiting at the end.
- The Lair of the Shoggoth in the Deep. Before the age of men and gods, the Unholy Ones reigned the world, and some of them still slumber in the earth. One of them lies in restless sleep in the dark vaults below the city, awaiting the cultists to find and awaken it.
- The Vault of the High Dragon. The Dragon Mages once dwelled where the city now lay, and one of the High Dragons of Old kept a vault here. There is power in that Vault, enough arcane energy to topple an empire in the right hands.
- The Prophet’s Tomb. This legendary site is many things: a sacred place, a treasure vault, and possibly one of the dark secrets of the city. Pilgrims visit the known locations from the prophet’s life. Treasure hunters seek it to plunder its wealth. Scholars seek its secrets. Crusaders have fought and died to both find and protect the tomb. The worst case scenario – the one that all dread – is that the tomb is recovered and found empty, or we learn that the prophet was something different than the tenants proclaim. The potential fallout and bloodshed of such an event are unmeasurable.
- The Unhallowed Crypts of the Lost Kings. The great kings are now all but forgotten, except in heroic tales of the past. Their regalia and weapons are symbols of glories past and could herald a new golden age of wealth and justice unless the Servants of Darkness find them first and corrupt these symbols of hope.
- The Graves of the Forgotten. The old mass graves from the genocide of the previous settlers of the city is a festering tomb of hate and wordless cries for justice. The vilest of all necromancers and the church leaders of blasphemous cults seek this place and its dark energy, and the city will crumble in a dark hole once they do.
- The Lich Queen’s Tomb. The Eldritch Queen, a now-forgotten tyrant of ages past, ruled the lands and resided where the city now stands. She will usher in a new era of darkness and horrors if awakened.
Cities are big places, and not everything is about the characters. In fact, very little is.
Someone is always watching in a city, and you will draw more attention if you object. Hiding in plain sight is critical to go unnoticed in a city.
- Church agents.
- City guards.
- Curious kids.
- Merchant’s Guild agents.
- Thieves’ Guild members.
- Wizard’s Guild agents.
Bounties: the City’s Most Wanted
- Foreign assassin or spy.
- Highwaymen or thugs.
- A local murderer.
- Secret cult leader or suspect cultist.
- A mentor returns and asks the characters to hide a locked chest. Soon the characters are attacked by the thieves’ guild.
- A jealous rivalry has turned violent.
- Ball or grand party.
- Commoners are slain in their home.
- Diplomatic meeting.
- Foreign dignitaries are visiting.
- Gnomes, halflings or dwarves celebrate.
- Inns and merchants organize a celebration.
- Jousting and archery contests.
- Mages are meeting for a conference.
- Merchants offer magic items or foreign goods.
- Religious celebration.
- A pair of young lovers celebrates a scandalous marriage of love.
- Several caravans have arrived.
- Someone is killing the local prostitutes.
- Someone of importance has died.
- Wedding in the neighborhood.
- A doomsayer has appeared on a corner.
- A church has a conclave in the city.
- Unspeakable things.
The Rise to Power, A New Ruler Emerge
So what happens if a character gains control of the city, and even retain control of it? This is a brilliant goal for a campaign, and equally excellent ending, allowing the character to retire and enjoy the benefits of victory after many struggles and hardships.
Or you could choose to continue. This is often ill-adviced, throwing away a perfect ending and risk running out of steam later in a middle-of-nowhere adventure, is something I would consider carefully before proceeding.
Consider your tools and options. Everything you have built so far for your city still works. The innkeeper’s daughter always knows more about specific parts of the city than the main characters. The dark secrets of the city may have been resolved, but are likely to cast long shadows still. Some criminals may have been disposed of, but others have eagerly taken their place. The city guards, the councilors and the nobles remain as untrustworthy as they ever were. The new ruler may find that the city is a dangerous as it ever was, except that now absolutely everybody wants the ruler dead. Everything and nothing has changed.
Rulership provides new options. The game can change to a “build a kingdom” game, with papers and paychecks, wars, with perhaps claiming the kingdom or empire as the new goal. Some roleplaying games provide rules for this, or you may choose to focus on the narrative and not worry about the rules. Both has its merits and flaws, and there is no right or wrong here. Focus on the fun, and you’ll do fine. Personally, I favor a mix, the rules provide a framework, then skill checks and hand-waving settle the rest.
Random Burdens of Rulership
- Draught is endangering the crops, and the harvest feast at the court is in danger. Perhaps raised taxes will allow more imports, and thus securing the nobles’ banquet?
- Discarded material components and strange chalk marks have been found in the government building basement. It appears that someone in the lord’s household worship, or at least deal with, demons.
- Spies report that the rulers of rival cities meet in secret. Perhaps a pre-emptive war is in order?
- The city budget is in the red, again, while the peasants and merchants complain about the tax level. Only a dragon’s hoard can save the city from riots and bankruptcy. Perhaps sending the army at a dragon could both save costs and win the city some much-needed gold? It’s worth considering.
Into the City, an improvisation environment cheat sheet for fantasy roleplaying games.
- Create Roleplaying Game Starter Areas
- Create Roleplaying Game Adventures
- Religion For Roleplaying Games
- Fantasy War Roleplaying Game Campaigns
The Reading List
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It is perhaps a bit pretentious read for gaming but is surprisingly easy to read for a political treatise of its age. For a short version, check out the quotes on Goodreads, as they convey the overall message pretty well.
A recent (and perhaps lighter read) is Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora (2006), a tale of thieves and con artists in an urban fantasy environment.
Another personal favorite remains Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold (2009), a humorously dark tale of murder and revenge, with not much frolicking in the woods going on.
Books about “the big city” is a staple for roleplaying settings. Waterdeep, the City of Greyhawk, Absalom, Zobeck, Freeport, Altdorf – the list goes on. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, and later the Pathfinder RPG.
Speaking for hard-boiled princes, how about a vampire prince? White Wolf’s Prince’s Primer is one of the most amusing books of the classic Vampire: the Masquerade.