How to Run Ripping City Encounters – 3 Tips?

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0496

How to Run Ripping City Encounters – 3 Tips?

Give City Encounters a Backstory

To make an encounter compelling it needs a backstory. Create a layer behind what the players see, which they can peel back and discover if they so choose. This adds depth, exploration and player control to your urban games, while keeping things manageable behind the screen.

For example, here’s an entry from the City Encounters contest currently running:

There’s a new homeless guy in town, and all the stray dogs follow him around, bring him food and pretty much do whatever he says. One of the strays tries to take a hero’s purse.

You could just run this fun encounter as-is without further development. The PC gets his purse back or not, dogs die or not, the homeless guy escapes or not. End of encounter.

Better though is to explore this a bit further. What’s this guy’s backstory? You’ve got a natural hook embedded in the encounter – the NPC’s command of the dogs. Let’s use that. Does he have a mystical ability, a natural talent or something else? How is he so effective with the dogs?

I prefer circling back to using existing game rules whenever possible for several reasons I won’t bore you with, so let’s say he has an exceptional Handle Animal skill. This choice presents a mundane answer but with interesting consequences.

  • In a D&D world, he must have levels in an NPC or PC class, or racial levels, to qualify for higher ranks in the Handle Animal skill.
  • In some non-D&D systems, we might interpret this as having either previous experience (earned character points) or a skewed personality (optimizing for Handle Animal burns many of his character creation points, leaving him a bit polarized).
  • The related character ability or stat for Handle Animal might also be high to give him an additional skill check bonus.
  • He might also have a feat, talent, boon or benefit (or more than one) that gives him additional skill check buffs.
  • He might have equipment, technology or magic that further buffs him.

All are interesting deductions and possibilities, just from considering one simple hook!

I’m going to choose PC levels + high ability score + feat for a bonus. I’m also going to make him a homeless person without possessions or other external resources (though a homeless NPC with a Ring of Animal Empathy would be fun too).

This begs the question, what happened to him that sent him from being an experienced and skilled person to living life on the street without a penny to his name?

Oh yeah, let’s give him a name: Randall Fisk. And a street name: Dogma (punny, yes, but as per a previous Roleplaying Tip, give NPCs names that are also hooks or clues).

Now let’s create a mundane backstory. If your campaigns are like mine, you probably already have a lot of NPCs with freak show stories and abilities. It is nice presenting normal so the weird contrasts sharply to best effect.

Randall was a retired soldier and happy farmer. His family was murdered in a raid, his farm burned to the ground, and he barely escaped enslavement. This broke his head, and he wandered to the city to die. Despite his anguished state of mind, his talent with and compassion for animals came out through instinct and he started protecting and feeding stray dogs. Enter the PCs.

Set-Up The Encounter Ahead of Time

If you roll this encounter off a random table and trigger it with no other context, your backstory becomes moot. The PCs hack, collect the XP and move on. Instead, you want your work put to good use, plus the full potential of this short and simple backstory brought to bear.

The solution: plant seeds before the encounter to create dramatic build-up. When the dog tries to snatch the PC’s purse, and the party realizes it is one of Dogma’s, you want all sorts of thoughts whirling through your players’ heads.

The easiest seeds to plant are clues, gossip and misinformation.

For example:

  • The dogman is insane (T).
  • They call him Dogma (T).
  • Wild dogs in the city are infecting people with foam-mouth disease (F).
  • Some of the wild dogs have glowing red eyes and breathe fire (T – but none of Dogma’s do).
  • There is a homeless guy who steals and eats babies and halflings (F).
  • Dogma was attacked last night by guards and his dogs killed a couple and drove the rest off (F – he was actually attacked by thieves wanting to steal the dogs for their own purposes).
  • The dogman captured a runaway horse and returned it to its owner calm and docile. The horse has not misbehaved since (T).
  • Dogma is a foreigner (T – as in, not from the city) and a spy (F).

Do this as much as you like. Then put those clues into play at every opportunity. If the PCs stumble onto just half these tid bits, the encounter will have much more impact than before. Will the PCs attack the dogs now? Attack him? Parley? Ask him why he’s homeless?

Give encounters backstories whenever possible, because city campaigns are all about six degrees of separation.

You can also look at it another way. Cities, unlike typical dungeons, are social environments. Commerce, family, friends, enemies, jobs, parties and events, and politics are just a few aspects of city life that tie everyone together. Cities thrive on information exchange, so your encounter backstories and rumours fill in what this type of gameplay needs.

Hook Encounters to Major NPCs

Link encounter backstories to major NPCs, preferably villains, rivals or those who present conflict for the party. This great trick lets you tie threads together ongoing as your campaign develops for added depth without added complexity.

If the players choose to peek behind the curtain of your seemingly simple one-off encounters, their eyes will grow large as they discover not only interesting backstory, but that their enemy somehow has their hands in this mess as well.

Do not make this revelation instant. Make the PCs work for it, perhaps through roleplaying, investigation or deduction.

First, pick which NPC(s) unexpectedly relate to the encounter.

Second, figure out the start of the relationship. Ask:

  • Why is he involved?
  • What does he want?
  • How did they meet
  • Is the relationship beneficial to both sides?


  • Employed by major NPC
  • Related to each other
  • Blackmail or coercion
  • Charmed, tricked or manipulated
  • One is using the other for personal gain or secret motive

Third, think about the potential end of the relationship. As we are aiming for conflict, and for getting the PCs involved, you should have an idea how things can end in spectacular fashion for a future great encounter.


  • Major NPC attacked by encounter’s NPC
  • Encounter NPC tricks, hires or inspires PCs to help
  • Encounter NPC assassinated
  • Encounter NPC framed so PCs arrest or attack him
  • Major NPC coerces or tricks PCs into assaulting encounter NPC

Knowing the terms of engagement lets you plot well-informed, especially as you GM the initial encounter. No need for lengthy planning here. You now know who is involved and why and how it could all end. Run the encounter armed with this information and let gameplay help you decide where to take things or how to react to player choices.

This is one of my favourite parts of GMing. Understand the terms of engagement (on behalf of NPCs and the setting) before a session to create interesting game space during sessions. Like a zen sand garden, you help mold a beautiful design. There is no winning in the traditional sense. There is just design emerging through gameplay. Like a zen garden, the pieces represent other things, so you can design on a number of different levels.

Or you can whack it with your two-handed sword. It’s all good.

Back to Dogma. Let’s say the person who ordered the attack on his farm, Guy LeSleye, is the PCs’ current employer. The party quests for expensive diamonds (needed for Stone Skin spells, but the employer keeps this secret) and will be paid handsomely.

Guy sent his thugs out into the country to cripple his rival’s wine-building resources. Thugs being thugs, they got carried away and whacked more than plants and buildings (now we have two villains and one unknown -Guy, his overzealous thug leader, and Guy’s rival).

At this point, I’m happy with this brief note on the villain’s relationship. A little information sharing and investigation opens up all kinds of possibilities for the PCs and Dogma. It’s there, waiting, for gameplay to happen. Dogma would likely go berserk on Guy given the knowledge and chance. Guy likely sees a pawn if he discovers who Dogma is. The thug leader might want to tie up loose ends if he’s brought into the picture. The PCs might reconsider allegiances to help Dogma, plot with Guy against the crazy dude,, or just beat down the stray dog to get the purse back and resume the hunt for diamonds.

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It all starts with an encounter seed. You just need a one or two sentence encounter idea and then you can run with it. Add backstory and ties to significant NPCs embroiled in conflict. Then set it up a bit in advance to not only make the encounter juicier, but to open up player awareness that there is more to the encounter than mere randomness.

Related Resources

Zen Gardens

7 City Tips From Your Fellow Subscribers — RPT#82

Bright Lights, Big City

Buildings, Establishments, and Places You Can Find In Villages, Towns, and Cities

4 City Building Tips: Give cities flavor with districts

8 City NPC Tips — RPT#169

City Features And Flavors — RPT#146

City Services, Landmarks And Businesses In A Fantasy Setting — RPT#141

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10 Pick Pockets Contents For Your Game

  1. The Diary of Elineezer – a small book that contains details about a false wall in the basement of his home.
  2. List of city watch members and how much they receive in bribe money per week.
  3. A coded list of locations of royal family members and times they are to be alone.
  4. Love letters, all perfumed and wrapped with a red ribbon. The address on the envelopes is smeared by tears.
  5. A gaudy gold ring studded with diamonds with a faint magic aura. Causes memory loss, with previous day’s events forgotten.
  6. A scrap of paper with “Marby Grange, eight bells, Wednesday” written on it.
  7. A deck of 52 playing cards with no twos but five threes, five sixes, five nines, and five Jacks.
  8. Hanged man tarot card with a PC’s name written in red across it.
  9. Scroll with magic ingredients – a shopping list with all but three items marked off.
  10. Gate pass for city gate after hours.
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