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Medieval Urbanity

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Looking back through Sword’s Edge, there are a lot of articles that might still be of interest. While I am not writing fiction or creating much these days – between my actual job, my Master’s program, and my family, I’m not getting much free time – I’ll dredge up some of those articles that might be of interest.

This time, talking about cities in RPGs and fantasy fiction.

Getting Medieval – Urbanity

Originally published 9 Mar 2008

Mike Mignola’s Lankhmar from Dark Horse Comics Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

When one talks about fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, what often comes to mind are castles. Strangely enough, for most of the games in which I’ve played, and a lot of the fantasy that I write, cities are very important. Even when the campaign takes the characters into the uncharted wilds, or to the fringes of civilization, these campaigns often begin in large cities. I like it that way.

Cities have always had a mystique to them. Great powers had big cities—think Uruk, Athens, and Rome. Those cities thrived on the lifeblood of empire, wealth and power. Wealth and power, in turn, drew people, be they merchants, craftsmen or simply labourers. As the population swelled, cities encountered problems not common to villages. Crime became a common complaint, and the stratification of society. Perhaps the two went hand in hand, I don’t know. It’s the crime and class angle that often leads me to set stories in cities. These easily offer conflict and are good gardens for rebellious characters and outsiders. Cities also offer one a concentration of another great subject of conflict—politics.

For role-playing games, cities have another draw. Those services one commonly finds in fantasy role-playing games that one might not actually find in the medieval countryside could be found in many large cities. Merchants to change large sums of coins or other objects of value to portable promissory notes were not uncommon in the urban centres of the middle and late medieval period. Large inns, rather than small public houses, existed in cities, as did establishments simply for eating and drinking, sometimes termed ordinaries, then later taverns, and now restaurants. And what adventurer hasn’t found a job or fellow adventurers in the local tavern?

In fantasy literature, cities often offer their own kind of adventure, though these rarely include dungeons and almost never dragons. Reading even a smattering of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or some of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories and one will come across urban adventures involving magic, dangers, and treasures. Cities are quite often the centre of campaign settings, such as Greyhawk in the World of Greyhawk, Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms, and now Monte Cook’s Ptolus.

So how does one design and run games in a city? One must consider that unlike an underground labyrinth, the city cannot funnel the party down certain paths to specific destinations. City adventures tend to be wilder and woolier than dungeons. As a GM, one must be prepared to deal with whatever inclination takes the PCs. This either means a lot of preparation or a willingness to design on the fly.

I prefer the latter.

One thing a GM can do is prepare modules, such as a couple of relatively fleshed out taverns, stores, locals, etc, and be ready to plug those in whenever needed. Don’t tie down events or encounters to specific areas in the city. The PCs may never venture into the Craft Quarter, so just have a modular armour smith that you can drop into the city wherever the PCs are. The same for taverns. PCs are regularly looking for some place to drink and eat—and get jobs! A list of NPCs with names grouped into general classifications—merchants, street urchins, thugs, city watch, etc—can help the GM when the PCs accost someone on the street or meet someone in a tavern.

While cities can provide opportunities to flex one’s muscles—think of Tombstone!—they provide even more opportunities for role-playing. If your players are not interested in a lot of RP, the city may simply be their rest stop on the highway to adventure, a place to eat, sleep, and tank up before going back into that dungeon. That’s fine. In such a case, the city is there to provide support for the PCs, and this include much more than simply equipment and supplies. Rumours may offer PCs clues about the area into which they are about to adventure. Libraries may provide information on the secrets that long lost dungeon is holding. The city can also provide the chance to train and advance, if that is used in the game.

So just remember that the city is there to help move the adventure along, not apply the brakes to it. A city can provide a welcome change from dungeon delving or can be the setting for an entire campaign, as the PCs become involved in its inner political machinations. A staple of fantasy fiction can easily find a home in most fantasy games.