15 Tips For Making Cities In Your Games Come To Life

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0081

  1. Questions For Yourself
  2. 1st Impressions Count
  3. “Here We Are Now, Entertain Us…” – Nirvana
  4. Splendour Always Makes An Impression
  5. Skipping Time – One Way To Avoid Street After Street
  6. Not Skipping Time… But Making It Memorable!
  7. Resist Habits
  8. Quizzes – God’s Gift To GMs
  9. City Adventures I – Setting Your Stage
  10. City Adventures II – Engaging Encounters (The Antagonists And The Foils)
  11. City Adventures III – Guards! Guards! (The Chorus)
  12. City Adventures IV – What Ordinary People Don’t Know
  13. City Adventures V – Transition – Toadies As The Way To Some Limited Influence
  14. City Adventures VI – A Big Hook
  15. City Adventures VII – Are We Having Fun? Pay-Offs And Game Balance

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Find NPC Names In The Credits Section Of Your Books
  2. Buying Dice On eBay
  3. Planning A Group’s Combat Tactics
  4. WOD Specific City Tips

A Brief Word From Johnn

This Week’s Guest Article

I have received many, many city tips from past issues’ requests, and I thought I’d get the ball rolling by re- publishing a stand-alone submission from Emmet Harris this week. In future issues I’ll be giving more tips on planning, building, and running RPG cities. Thanks again to everyone for your great tips!

Dungeon Crafter

Last week I recommended a freebie called MyInfo for organizing your roleplaying notes on your computer. Here’s another free gem called Dungeon Crafter.

It’s extremely easy to use. And the best feature, I think, is that there is a huge fan base that has created hundreds of free tiles for you to download and use.

The software lets you make almost any kind of map: city plans, dungeons, overland maps, spaceship designs, and so on, so any GM should find it of value.

Check out the program, map samples and tile sets at: http://www.dungeoncrafter.com

(By the way, I’m not getting paid for this review. I use the program and just wanted to share it with you.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Roleplaying Games @ About.com

Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site: http://www.roleplaygames.about.com

In This Week’s Spotlight: “Why You GM: Your Feedback”

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article about why game mastering can be so much fun. I asked readers to send in their own reasons for why they love GMing so much and here are the submissions I received (thanks again to everyone who wrote in): http://www.roleplaygames.about.com/library/weekly/aa062801.htm 

New Product Reviews:

d20: The Longest Night, The Witchfire Trilogy: Book One

Word of the Pillars, Word of the Dancers, Word of the Fates Three supplements for Tribe 8

15 Tips For Making Cities In Your Games Come To Life

From Emmet Harris

Running a city campaign requires a certain sort of skill and attention to the players’ desires. I am sure someone will write an essay on just those issues (I mention them briefly as my last point at 15, below), but I thought the best thing I could contribute in my three quarters of an hour was a collection of “production notes” – a series of tips about the particular issues that will face a GM as he tries to work out how he is going to present a city and make it engaging to his audience.

Whether your PC group is just passing through, or you are running an ongoing adventure in that city, you will need:

  • A setting
  • NPCs
  • A web of intrigue
  • A story all in one place

The following tips may be useful for a GM looking for artistic direction in portraying their cities.

Questions For Yourself

Do you have a story to tell for the city? Can you bring part of that city’s character out through that story? Can you give that city’s character a visual manifestation and use that vision to give the city life?Your choice for what you want your audience to see will be based on your answers. World of Darkness gamers will be familiar with admonitions to portray their cities a certain way.

Emphasising rust, abandoned buildings, bullet-holes or flickering street-lamps are just a tiny slice of the possible examples, and portray only one mood. Once you have decided on your themes and moods, you will know better what you want your PCs to see.

1st Impressions Count

Be bold. Players will forgive an excess of energy and colour and prefer it by far to a “convincing” or realistic, but otherwise grey, city.So you think that the city is pretty boring on a Monday afternoon? Who cares? Make it as busy as a Friday or Saturday night in Summer! So what, if in your opinion, only 5% of a city actually has anything interesting to show the PCs? Show them that 5%!

“Here We Are Now, Entertain Us…” – Nirvana

Let’s face it, entertaining your troupe with descriptions is about beating your own limitations at improvisation. If you’re brilliant at improvising a description of a colourful, entertaining scene, then you’ve got a lot of the hardest work in the bag… For the rest of us, the following tips might help:Entertainers are everywhere, even in the hubs of cities, and are certainly more interesting to look at than the beggars. Use this street-side action and all the sensory stimulation that goes with it – especially smells.

Beware of imagining all street-side performers as being of one sort. This is an easy trap for the creatively stretched GM who gets used to seeing performers only on the streets of her own city, or who thinks of performers in terms of her favorite novel’s setting. This can lead to describing similar acts again and again. One remedy – try checking out one of Cirque du Soleil’s acts, or any of their promotional materials, and go nuts trying to come up with a moving description of the poetry that is their movement.

To add to the atmosphere of your scenes, try to get some music appropriate for dance-halls, love-pits, street performers, circus acts, etc. (Cirque du Soleil is brilliant for this last sort.)

Concentrate on how you describe those trying to entertain the PCs. See that grinning, suited Mandolin player in the doorway who has hair that might be blonde, almost matted to dreads through lack of washing? See his dirty, smiling face? He’s charming, but isn’t there something a little…. *thin* about him with his large eyes? Perhaps the jacket looks a little less than immaculate?

If you are wandering through an area and you want to describe a scene, don’t be vague. Get particular. Use “To your left you see …., and to your right…..”, etc.

By being specific, (yet economical) in your descriptions, you will make your scenes unique. Another benefit is that, as well as doing all the descriptive work you would always put into your tableaus, you’ll *never* have to worry about your players silently thinking “another bloody tumbler!”

As a final tip on describing city street-side scenes, I would suggest having at least 4 street-side tableaus ready to describe on paper. And since this Tips column is historically hot on index cards, then try that if you like.

Splendour Always Makes An Impression

Go Hollywood! Go turn of the (last) century Paris! Go Las Vegas! Big, stupid buildings like one in the shape of an elephant, or a faux windmill with oversized blades with lights on them (both from Moulin Rouge) can portray a real impression of excess, or at least splendour.Take, for example, the Phoenix-like temple to Lathander in the AD&D Shadowdale Boxed Set. Now that’s impressive – at least, if you describe it right. :-). One idea to imitate – think Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge, and you’re on one right track with this tip.

Skipping Time – One Way To Avoid Street After Street

A short while later, when you go out for entertainment, you find you’ve drifted amongst a district with many hung oil lamps and torches, and from all the brightly lit dance halls, you hear what sounds like Spanish guitar, and raucous partying and some very disciplined dancing.

The air is jasmine scented here in Arabel’s “Purple District”, where (*ahem*), people wear their purple sashes that would say they were looking for a mate in anything but the traditional bandolier fashion!”Describing things this way might be more entertaining than playing through the locating of yet another inn, getting yet another room, etc.

Not Skipping Time… But Making It Memorable!

If you’re bound and determined to drag your poor players through another inn and bar scene, try to go to the trouble of pre-generating one… complete with barkeep. Irony Games’ web-site does a decent job. [http://www.irony.com/mktavern.html] But, you may need to spruce up the interior decor a tad, and the barkeep’s persona will doubtless require some pre-generation and some improvisation. (Index cards optional ;)Try to make at least one of the entertainers or bar-staff memorable.

Nothing’s worse than running into “Fat Jolly Jock the Yorkshire Barmen No. 5”, or “human-looking but otherwise just like the Green Karaoke bar owner from Angel No. 7”, or “Woody the barman No. 3”.One of each (per game-master!) is not only forgivable, but can be a real lark. Tribute is cool. Especially if you as a referee have acting skills that really run to hamming it up and you enjoy playing those caricatures – enthusiasm is contagious, use your energy ;). Just enjoy it in moderation.

Resist Habits

Don’t let ’em do the “inn thing” in the same order each time. Break things up.For example:

  • Don’t have every bar’s stables tended by a boy. Throw in an old bloke who chases off other competitors with a stick.
  • Don’t always have an obvious bouncer, unless the PCs ask….
  • Tell the PCs they have to wait outside for a few minutes before they get in (Noble coming out, etc.). In fact, try throwing in an encounter on the verge/porch/outside about one in five times. eg. Barman begging wealthy patron to come back in, despite the insult offered by another patron.

Basically, do anything to break up the “horses to boy….door….scan….spot bar….spot barman…spot bouncer…spot entertainment… get drink…sit at tables” routine.

Quizzes – God’s Gift To GMs

If you know your players are going to go to a new city in this session then ask them questions (written Q&A – or “Character Quizzes” for us Amber players).For example:

  1. Explain what you (or your character, or both) imagine by the rather vague description of “a good bar”? An expensive bar? A smelly bar? A cheap bar?This sort of question gets your players to provide you with their visions of the world. You can use these as your inspiration when you haven’t got any.
  2. What is your character interested in looking at/scanning for when they enter an unknown bar?
  3. What do you think your character is interested in for entertainment? Assume they can afford anything.

I wouldn’t advise giving them anything that exactly matches their descriptions… There’s no spice in that! More importantly for responses from the first question (and any activity that they do a lot), try running things against their expectations occasionally, if you can.

City Adventures I – Setting Your Stage

Avoid letting the story wander to so many places that the city becomes a blur of streets! Take a leaf out of the White Wolf Books – the Chicago sourcebooks, and try to create a feel for a couple of discreet areas.For example:

  • Use 2 locations from each of the broad areas you have decided to depict in your city.
  • Limit street trawling by the PCs for nasties.
  • Try to generate three distinctly different entertainment venues. If you can get some music for each, great. (On this note, take the Baz Luhrman approach – you don’t need historically accurate songs – just get something that strikes a chord with how a modern person might feel in the modern equivalent of that setting)[Johnn: for more info on the movie and stage director, Baz Luhrman, check this out: http://mdcm.arts.unsw.edu.au/students98/AdamsC/innovate/ ]
  • If “monster bashing” is in the cards, try to do it chiefly when the PCs have gone looking for it, with information on where these things are (eg. in the TV series “Angel”, Cordelia has visions, or your PCs may have info gathered by their con-man or holy fella).

These techniques allow you to focus on an actual location in the city…. and not have to resort to wandering monster tables *too* much.

City Adventures II – Engaging Encounters (The Antagonists And The Foils)

Warn your players that no dice-roll will be preceding each “random” encounter. They need to just play their character and decide on what’s important and what’s ancillary as you serve it up to them. This alone will help your players not fall into a routine of treating some encounters as “plot” and others as “random”.If you are playing a swords-and-sorcery game with monsters, *definitely* use those “random monster” charts, but use them before a game, and try to come up with a back-story for each of your wandering-whatsits, in the same way you would normally make up a thumb-nail sketch of a walk-on NPC.

City Adventures III – Guards! Guards! (The Chorus)

Devote a lot of time to how you will characterise the law, as vigilantes are generally not appreciated. Getting your troupe into the spirit of how they, as adventurers, would respond to the law can be tricky when dealing with those game systems where people get oodles of “You can’t touch this!” i.e. lots of hit points ;-)Examples of encounters that can clue players in to the fact that adventurers are not received well:

  1. Suspicious gate guards suggesting adventurers go to the tax office to declare their earnings.
  2. A Barman eyes the PCs’ swords meaningfully.
  3. A bar patron, perhaps a farmer or labourer, eyes the PCs’ weapons and moves another table away.
  4. A bloke takes his sweetheart out of the bar after the “adventurer types” walk in.
  5. Everywhere the PCs go, people ask them if they know anything about “Svald the Bald” (a brigand) or his men, etc., and while no one is actually trying to be offensive, the implication is clear…. adventurers are automatically suspect.
  6. Guard patrols from different precincts stop the PCs… (“Hell, Larry! Look at all them swords! They don’t look like Lord Krondell’s men….We better check that out…”). The PCs may soon feel they are the victims of organised harassment – but this isn’t the case, just several different patrols of guards independently all thinking the same thing: “Here’s Trouble”.

City Adventures IV – What Ordinary People Don’t Know

You know what makes me chuckle? A PC talking in-character about the “Thieves Guild”. At its worst, it’s most cliche. Surely these “institutions” are known as only (pick one) “the Business/Firm/Family/Organisation”.Also, unless you’re on the madcap Disc-world where these things are parodied as really being public institutions of a fixed address and law-abiding nature, then surely the people and or location of these thing’s aren’t public! Furthermore, these things will generally have no fixed address.Think about the model you want for your “thieves guild”.

  • An old established firm, like in the Sopranos?
  • A new gang? Ask yourself where the core members picked up their core skills.
  • Brigandage? Then they’re likely into “protection” and thuggery, and trying to get info on the big caravans to get a cut of proceeds from existing brigandage.
  • Pick-pockets? Possibly also into selling stolen goods, drugs and perhaps prostitution.
  • Cons? Possibly these types are very clever and have a penchant for organising quasi-legitimate businesses and have moved into smuggling.
  • Slavery? Here’s trouble. These sorts, along with the brigands, value human life very little. These are dangerous folk.

Whatever the model of “thieves guild” you choose, think of all the criminal movies you’ve seen. Your Troupe of PCs can bumble along and seriously cock-up *any* of these thieves’ “businesses” quite accidentally, with serious repercussions for those adventurers.

For example:

  • I’d imagine nothing will quite chill (or madden) the party like having their most powerful fighter delivered to them either in a body-bag (in a campaign where death and resurrection are like slaps and band-aids) or very nearly dead, and missing some small body part.
  • Clouseau-like thieves who can’t get anything right… How you choose to use them as their plans come undone, even without the PCs intervention, (but perhaps by coincidence the PCs are always on the scene and can take the credit), could be a light-hearted change of pace, or even a recurring gag in the city campaign.

City Adventures V – Transition – Toadies As The Way To Some Limited Influence

So you’re rich? Well, it’s not just desperate peasants, mercenary courtesans, and hopeful sell-swords who might want a piece of it….. there’s bankers, lawyers, and financiers as well! Seriously, the PCs might find themselves hounded by people eager to give them “A guaranteed 10% return!”, and lavish them with high-class restaurant nights, and perhaps all the (*Ahem*) company they want.This can be an excellent transition for the characters from adventuring life into being based in a city.

Simply being courted by developers, would-be advisers and their ilk will immediately set your more social players’ minds moving.Respectability, power, security, influence…. things many adventurers craved when they set out hoping to gain power by being adventurers. Yet all they obtained was the admiration of a few villagers for a season, a feast of a fattened calf, the eternal hero-worship of some 5-year-old for avenging his parent’s death, and perhaps some gold. A city’s adoring toadies hold the promise of conveying the *real* benefits that wealth can bring.

City Adventures VI – A Big Hook

Romance. I wish I could give some concrete advice on writing romance stories that will appeal to your troupe, but it is bound to be a highly particular thing. I can say one thing for certain, nothing will make your average plucky adventurer remain in one place than pursuing a love that they hope to bring to consummation, other than say, making them King of the Realm ;-).Playing NPCs that the players can even *pretend* their character could fall in love with? Well, it’s not for all GMs, or for all troupes.

I wonder if maybe romance in RP games might be another good topic, Johnn?[Johnn: I know my group often skirts around the issue. Does anyone have some “romance in RPGs” tips?]

City Adventures VII – Are We Having Fun? Pay-Offs And Game Balance

I can’t speak for the exact sort of city adventure you will choose to run, but I’ll make the assumption that the option to adventure *outside* the city still exists.If that’s the case, I would suggest that you need to make sure that the *promise* of one of the following 5 general aims are present to each and every one of the PCs – and that you have taken the right measure of your audience and matched the right suite of motivations to the right players.

  1. Power
  2. Romance
  3. Wealth
  4. Respectability
  5. Acceptance

Often, creative GMs with perfectly decent ideas for stories “tank” because they failed to provide good audience hooks. Make sure there is something for everyone, and you’ll find that you’ll be able to keep the city adventure going for a long time.

I know a whole essay could be written on just this one issue. [Johnn: any takers?] This set of production tips mentions it in the throwaway fashion, because to neglect completely would be criminal. If you don’t consider these audience hooks, your troupe may well wish to go back to the *simpler* wilderness/dungeon adventuring, with its six-fold model of motivation for monster-bashing (fun, glory, gold, duty, honour, and power). This “simple” adventuring can accommodate all six within the one unified activity.

Presenting a city in such a way that it is an attractive place to play an adventure, let alone a campaign, takes an impressive set of skills. With some preparation, and a lot of thought, you should be able to produce really impressive city gaming material.

Good Gaming,

Emmet Harris
[email protected] [Johnn: thanks Emmet for the great city portrayal tips. There’s lots more city tips coming in future issues.

For those of you interested in finding more about the Moulin Rouge, check out this site: http://www.retroactive.com/may98/moulin.html ]

Tips Request: “City Businesses, Services & Important Buildings”

Would a list of these things be useful to you for when you’re planning city adventures or creating cities? I think that they’d make great checklists and be inspirational when designing encounters.

If you agree, then send in any ideas for types of business, services and important building that are found in cities. All genres and time periods welcome!

Send your lists to: [email protected]


Find NPC Names In The Credits Section Of Your Books

From Daniel W.

This is just a quick tip about names for NPCs.

If you’re running RP campaigns in present day to near future Earth settings, you can get lots of names from just looking in the credits bit at the front (or back) of computer game or RP manuals. Look for all the ‘little’ people that helped to make or playtest the game and you can either just use a name (if it’s appropriate) or you can ‘pick and mix’ first and second names to get a suitable one for your NPC (or indeed PC).

For example, I needed names for a American terrorist and a Colombian drug baron for my GURPS Special Ops campaign. I looked in a computer game manual while I was typing out their stats and I found several names which I chopped and swapped to create Khristopher McConnell and Carlos Lucero!

I once even got a name for a Russian Mafia boss while watching a police documentary! The Mafia lord then became ‘Constantine Rumanov’! (He actually is a real Russian criminal!)

It’s a dead easy way of getting names for NPCs if, like me, you have difficulty just thinking of them. You just need to be observant and resourceful. Finally, try to make up original names when you can and if you find one like ‘Constantine Rumanov’, make sure they are obscure or little known people. Naming your crime lord ‘Al Capone’ is not going to get you points for originality…

Graphic of section divider

Buying Dice On eBay

From Kate M.

This is in response to Kirk’s “Cheap miniatures”. Dice can be easily found on eBay. BUT, if you’re looking strictly for gaming dice, be sure to type either “Chessex Dice” (Chessex being the most well known RPG dice manufacturer) or “RPG Dice”. Otherwise, you will get lots and lots of unwanted entries for dice.

In addition, if you’re going on eBay to look for dice, I highly recommend any listing by DEI. (Dungeon Explorers on the Internet) They’re a great company to deal with. They actually made up an auction item at my request (though I wound up losing), and when I placed an order with them and had a problem with one of the die I ordered (loss of paint), they shipped me a new one at no charge and didn’t ask me to return the other die! They generally sell sets of Chessex dice on eBay, or you can visit them at their website: http://www.gj.net/dei/

Graphic of section divider

Planning A Group’s Combat Tactics

From Alex W.

[In response to Issue #47: How To Keep Your Butt In One Piece While Adventuring In The Wilderness RPT#47 – How To Keep Your Butt In One Piece While Adventuring In The Wilderness ]

The last tip you gave, planning the group’s response to an attack, should get its own article.

I have found that everyone enjoys combat more if they have some idea of what their responsibilities and duties are.

Having the players discuss tactics ahead of time may annoy some of the players who prefer to concentrate on role-playing, and see a discussion of tactics as catering to the combat oriented crowd. However, once this task is completed, even the players who prefer to role-play find that combat runs cleaner, faster, and takes a good deal less time during a gaming session.
It also can help the players understand the other characters better. If the big, burly barbarian prefers to shoot the enemy full of arrows from behind cover, the other characters would really like to know this BEFORE the barbarian runs into the woods at the first sign of an enemy.

There are a lot of tasks that should be considered when a group plans its battle orders. I’ll list a few, and probably miss many.

  1. Who’s in command. This may not be the same as the regular party leader, but someone skilled specifically in tactics.
  2. Who’s the second in command?
  3. What types of weapons will be used (and who uses what)?
    1. Close combat (swords, daggers, etc.)
    2. Stand-off weapons (polearms)
    3. Mounted
    4. Ranged/Spell (requiring path to target)
    5. Spell/ESP (not requiring a path to target)
    6. Other?
  4. Are there any non-combatants? What are their assignments?
    1. Heal
    2. Taunt
    3. Communicate with other characters
    4. Repair
    5. Reload
    6. Run for back-up
    7. Cower
  5. What style of combat?
    1. Defensive ring (AKA Protect the Mage)
    2. Full frontal assault (The best defense….)
    3. Pincer maneuver (3 character minimum, better with 30+)
  6. Terrain differences
    1. Outside/Inside
    2. Woods/Plains/Mountains/Ocean/vacuum/etc.
    3. Daylight/Nighttime/Artificial lighting/etc.

Most of these things will vary from combat to combat. But general rules can be laid down for all combat well in advance. Some rules will be very simple – When the Wizard yells out “Hasta Manana, Baby” at the end of his Lightning Bolt Spell, everyone hits the floor.

Other rules can be very detailed – Ex. When Blowhard the Barbarian attacks with a ‘Sushimi Surprise’, after the third feint, there will be an opening below his left armpit for Archibald the Archer to target the enemy. (Some expertise in ballet may be required.)

What seems to annoy players and characters the most is being surprised by another player’s/character’s actions. Players expect the Game Master to throw curve-balls at them, but they HATE having their characters die because another player has shot them in the back.

If everyone knows that the first thing the thief does is stoke up the fire, the Knight stays on defensive until there is enough light to see by, while the Wizard steps back behind the Knight to ready a spell, combat will go much more smoothly and with greater enjoyment for all.

The alternative, where the thief slips into the woods to look for an opportunity to backstab an enemy, the knight charges in a full frontal assault, and the wizard (played by an excellent roleplayer who understands the needs of an old man) shakes the sleep from his head, slowly gets up, and gets a pike in his stomach, can really ruin a player’s day.

Graphic of section divider

WOD Specific City Tips

From Kate M.

[Johnn: I’d like to give a special thanks to Kate who submitted these WOD tips at my specific request, as I know there are many WOD GMs on the list and my on-going D&D slant on things doesn’t always meet their needs.

System-specific tips from GMs of different games are always welcome, as I can post them here, in the Reader’s Tips Section, for GMs of similar games to benefit from.]

All right bloodsuckers, here are some tips for Cities geared more towards Vampire the Masquerade and the World of Darkness:

First and foremost: If you would rather create your own city than using one of the “By Night” supplements, you might want to keep in mind that most of the ‘by night’ books are patterned similar to a road guide. Therefore, you might want to pick one up for the respective city you’re using, if it’s available.

When creating a city, consider the food supply for the vampires. Most cities large enough to host a fair-sized population will have blood banks, or at the very least, periodic blood drives. For those Kindred that prefer to hunt, make sure there are sufficient feeding grounds.

For example, you would likely want to have nightclubs as well as ‘bad’ neighborhoods where crime runs rampant and ‘red-light districts’ where hookers walk the streets. But keep in mind that in all likelihood, the BEST feeding grounds will already be claimed, and that person or persons might not take kindly to someone encroaching on it.

Also consider that there is going to be some form of government in the city, regardless of its affiliation (Anarch, Camarilla, Independent or Sabbat) There is always going to be SOMEONE in charge of the city, or at the very least, someone that THINKS they are.

Remember, also, that Vampires choose to stay in cities for the relative safety they offer, and that most Garou (except for Glass Walkers and Bone Gnawers) avoid the cities. Unless you have a city with a LOT of greenspace and parks, encounters with Garou should be RARE. For that matter, encounters with any other supernaturals should be rare.

Otherwise, these creatures quickly lose their uniqueness. And of course according to White Wolf’s own guidelines, there should be no more than one vampire in a city per 100,000 inhabitants. The same rule of thumb should be applied likewise to Magi,Garou and Changelings.

But always remember: This is YOUR city. You can make it whatever you want.