At first glance, a city is much like a dungeon, made up of walls, doors, rooms, and corridors. Adventures that take place in cities have two salient differences from their dungeon counterparts, however. Characters have greater access to resources, and they must contend with law enforcement.
Unlike in dungeons and the wilderness, characters can buy and sell gear quickly in a city. A large city or metropolis probably has high-level NPCs and experts in obscure fields of knowledge who can provide assistance and decipher clues. And when the PCs are battered and bruised, they can retreat to the comfort of a room at an inn.
The freedom to retreat and ready access to the marketplace means that the players have a greater degree of control over the pacing of an urban adventure.
None would deny that opportunities for great adventure lie within the dank dungeons, winding caves, and sprawling wildlands of the world. However, the place where the PCs come back to sell their treasures, rest, and live their lives can hold excitement as well. Urban settings shouldn’t be overlooked as a place of adventure. Filled with people, businesses, intrigue, and secret locations, cities can provide adventure hooks on literally every street corner. This section looks at how settlements are put together, how the PCs move around them, what business can be conducted there, and how to craft your own adventures within a city, taking into account both real life elements and the incredible possibilities that magic affords to fantasy settings.
If you’re building a settlement from scratch, you’ll first need to determine how many people live there. Is it a tiny collection of houses along a lonely stretch of road? Is it a bustling village that sits at the crossroads of several major thoroughfares? Or is it a full city that serves as the hub for an entire region? Chapter 6 of this book contains a wealth of advice on how societies and civilizations function, but what happens when your PCs actually want to adventure in the city?
Before running an adventure in your city, you must decide what it looks and feels like. The first thing your PCs see as they approach a new city is its skyline. Unless you have a reason to avoid it, consider giving your city’s skyline at least one notable landmark. If a city’s skyline is shown in silhouette, a knowledgeable traveler should be able to recognize it. The landmark could be an unusually shaped building, a huge tower (such as a cathedral’s bell tower), a castle atop a hill, an immense statue of a dragon, a decommissioned warship protruding from a too-small waterfront, or anything else you can imagine, but being able to remind the PCs what city you’re talking about by mentioning this unique landmark gives you an incredibly useful resource.
The bulk of the buildings within any settlement are the homes of the people that live there. Many businesses merely present a storefront, with the rooms above or behind it serving as the owner’s home. If you’re following a medieval model for your city, then the typical home is host to a large number of people crammed into a relatively small space. The average peasant or freeman might only be able to afford a single room or two within a house, living cheek-to-jowl with his neighbors to either side and possibly above and below.
Buildings themselves are products of their environments and are built from materials readily available in the area. The terrain and climate of the land surrounding a city determines what that city is made of. A city in a temperate coastal area might have mostly wooden buildings with some stone structures. A desert town would have adobe or stone buildings, or even structures dug into the earth itself to create dark, cool places for people to live. Cities built in swamps or wetlands might have massive levees and dams to keep the water at bay.
If you’re having trouble visualizing the size and population of a village, town, or city, compare it to real-life locations and gauge accordingly. For example, at its height at the end of the 2nd Century, Rome boasted over a million people (although census records were sketchy—some report nearly 10 times that number!). During the 14th Century, Rome’s population had declined drastically to around 50,000 people. Although these numbers might not seem particularly impressive compared to modern cities, Rome was considered massive and teeming with people. A heavily populated city does not necessarily translate to urban sprawl. For example, when London reached the 80,000 mark in the 14th Century, the populace was still squeezed within the confines of the ancient walls built by the Romans several centuries earlier, resulting in atrocious living conditions.
Another way to help conceptualize such huge numbers of people is to look at sports arenas, some of which can hold the population of a small or medium-sized town within a single vast structure. The famous Coliseum in Rome could hold 50,000 people at a time. Modern Yankee Stadium can hold nearly 60,000 people.
You should also consider the settlement’s level of sanitation and the presence of sewers. A city with decent sanitation copes with disease considerably better than those where people simply dump sewage in the streets. Settlements with sewers and other sanitation infrastructure also provide ready-made locations for your players to explore, hunting down criminals and cultists or searching for lost treasure, all beneath the feet of the unaware citizens walking the streets above.
How do people get around in the town where they live? What are the streets and avenues of your settlement like? Is the town open, with wide avenues, or is it cramped, with houses crammed together, casting the streets and alleyways below into perpetual shadow?
Assuming that the settlement doesn’t contain some sort of wide-ranging magical transport network, most people get around the old-fashioned ways—by foot, mount, or carriage. In most cities, these are the only options available. However, depending on the city and the level of technology and/or magic available, how the populace gets from Point A to Point B could be far more interesting. Adult humans have a walking speed of around 3-1/2 miles per hour. Thus, walking across a small, open town may take only a matter of minutes. Yet as cities grow in size, they become more difficult to swiftly navigate because of the density of people, animals, and vehicles on their winding streets. In large cities or metropolises with moderate-to-high population density, people on foot move at the rate of a single mile per hour.
Rather than walking, those who can afford the fare may also travel in animal-drawn vehicles, such as wagons, carriages, or hansom cabs. They might also travel in rickshaws or something equivalent. This method is probably more common in places where people are plentiful and horses, mules, and other beasts of burden are either rare, expensive, or both. Does your city sit on a river, or is it interlaced with canals? If so, then gondolas, barges, canoes, or other flat-bottomed boats are probably used as a major form of transportation. Cities and towns built in confined spaces may be far more vertical than less densely-built cities; the populace might make use of bridges, ladders, and even lifts to haul people up and down the several stories they need to traverse.
Beyond these mundane methods of movement, magic and technology can create truly bizarre or fantastic conveyances. In a high-magic game, magic carpets or the equivalent may be employed by the wealthy to travel within a city. Alternately, the city (or independent entrepreneurs) may possess its own “fleet” of specially trained griffons or other flying creatures capable of carrying one or more people to specific locations. In extreme cases, teleportation may even be relatively common, with special booths or “stepping portals” scattered throughout the city, allowing instantaneous transportation within the confines of the settlement or beyond. Take care to limit these magical methods in your game, though, unless you want a game where the wondrous becomes commonplace.
Keep in mind that the PCs can encounter danger and excitement even as they travel through a town or city. Besides the occasional assault by thieves, gangs, or other ruffians, the PCs may have to deal with animals run amok, riots, duels (mundane or magical) in the streets, fires, agitators, and any number of other interesting events. If a pickpocket manages to snag an item from one of the PCs, a rooftop chase might ensue as the PCs pursue the thief. A procession of nobles may stop and question the presence of the adventurers in their fair city. A random corpse in the gutters bearing the signs of a ritual murder may open up an investigation or mystery.
The city’s streets themselves bear consideration as well, for it is here that many of your urban-themed encounters will begin or end. A typical city street should be wide enough to allow two horse-drawn carriages to pass each other, with a little bit of additional room for foot traffic—as a result, well-traveled city streets should never be less than 30 feet wide, with major thoroughfares being 60 feet wide or wider. Back streets might be only 15 or even 10 feet wide—anything narrower than 10 feet will be difficult to navigate on horseback or via carriage. These narrow lanes are usually your city’s alleyways, only 5 to 10 feet across and often taking complex, winding routes between buildings.
Typical city streets are narrow and twisting. Most streets average 15 to 20 feet wide, while alleys range from 10 feet wide to only 5 feet. Cobblestones in good condition allow normal movement, but roads in poor repair and heavily rutted dirt streets are considered light rubble, increasing the DC of Acrobatics checks by 2.
Some cities have no larger thoroughfares, particularly cities that gradually grew from small settlements to larger cities. Cities that are planned, or perhaps have suffered a major fire that allowed authorities to construct new roads through formerly inhabited areas, might have a few larger streets through town. These main roads are 25 feet wide—offering room for wagons to pass each other—with 5-foot-wide sidewalks on either side.
Crowds: Urban streets are often full of people going about their daily lives. In most cases, it isn’t necessary to put every 1st-level commoner on the map when a fight breaks out on the city’s main thoroughfare. Instead, just indicate which squares on the map contain crowds. If crowds see something obviously dangerous, they’ll move away at 30 feet per round at initiative count 0. It takes 2 squares of movement to enter a square with crowds. The crowds provide cover for anyone who does so, enabling a Stealth check and providing a bonus to Armor Class and on Reflex saves.
Directing Crowds: It takes a DC 15 Diplomacy check or DC 20 Intimidate check to convince a crowd to move in a particular direction, and the crowd must be able to hear or see the character making the attempt. It takes a full-round action to make the Diplomacy check, but only a free action to make the Intimidate check.
If two or more characters are trying to direct a crowd in different directions, they make opposed Diplomacy or Intimidate checks to determine to whom the crowd listens. The crowd ignores everyone if none of the characters’ check results beat the DCs given above.
Rooftops: Getting to a roof usually requires climbing a wall, unless the character can reach a roof by jumping down from a higher window, balcony, or bridge. Flat roofs, common only in warm climates (as accumulated snow can cause a flat roof to collapse), are easy to run across. Moving along the peak of a pitched roof requires a DC 20 Acrobatics check. Moving on an angled roof surface without changing altitude (moving parallel to the peak, in other words) requires a DC 15 Acrobatics check. Moving up and down across the peak of a roof requires a DC 10 Acrobatics check.
Eventually a character runs out of roof, requiring a long jump across to the next roof or down to the ground. The distance to the closest roof is usually 1d3 × 5 feet horizontally, but the next roof is equally likely to be 5 feet higher, 5 feet lower, or the same height. Use the guidelines in the Acrobatics skill (a horizontal jump’s peak height is one-fourth of the horizontal distance) to determine whether a character can make a jump.
Sewers: To get into the sewers, most characters open a grate (a full-round action) and jump down 10 feet. Sewers are built exactly like dungeons, except that they’re much more likely to have floors that are slippery or covered with water. Sewers are also similar to dungeons in terms of creatures liable to be encountered therein. Some cities were built atop the ruins of older civilizations, so their sewers sometimes lead to treasures and dangers from a bygone age.
Most city buildings fall into three categories. The majority of buildings in the city are two to five stories high, built side-by-side to form long rows separated by secondary or main streets. These row houses usually have businesses on the ground floor, with offices or apartments above.
Inns, successful businesses, and large warehouses—as well as millers, tanners, and other businesses that require extra space—are generally large, free-standing buildings with up to five stories.
Finally, small residences, shops, warehouses, or storage sheds are simple, one-story wooden buildings, especially if they’re in poorer neighborhoods.
Most city buildings are made of a combination of stone or clay brick (on the lower one or two stories) and timbers (for the upper stories, interior walls, and floors). Roofs are a mixture of boards, thatch, and slates, sealed with pitch. A typical lower-story wall is 1 foot thick, with AC 3, hardness 8, 90 hp, and a Climb DC of 25. Upper-story walls are 6 inches thick, with AC 3, hardness 5, 60 hp, and a Climb DC of 21. Exterior doors on most buildings are good wooden doors that are usually kept locked, except on public buildings such as shops and taverns.
If a city has main thoroughfares, they are lined with lanterns hanging at a height of 7 feet from building awnings. These lanterns are spaced 60 feet apart, so their illumination is all but continuous. Secondary streets and alleys are not lit; it is common for citizens to hire lantern-bearers when going out after dark.
Alleys can be dark places even in daylight, thanks to the shadows of the tall buildings that surround them. A dark alley in daylight is rarely dark enough to afford true concealment, but it can lend a +2 circumstance bonus on Stealth checks.
Walls, doors, poor lighting, and uneven footing: in many ways a city is much like a dungeon. Some special considerations for an urban setting are covered below.
Many cities are surrounded by walls. A typical small city wall is a fortified stone wall 5 feet thick and 20 feet high. Such a wall is fairly smooth, requiring a DC 30 Climb check to scale. The walls are crenelated on one side to provide a low wall for the guards atop it, and there is just barely room for guards to walk along the top of the wall. A typical small city wall has AC 3, hardness 8, and 450 hp per 10-foot section.
A typical large city wall is 10 feet thick and 30 feet high, with crenellations on both sides for the guards on top of the wall. It is likewise smooth, requiring a DC 30 Climb check to scale. Such a wall has AC 3, hardness 8, and 720 hp per 10-foot section.
A typical metropolis wall is 15 feet thick and 40 feet tall. It has crenellations on both sides and often has a tunnel and small rooms running through its interior. Metropolis walls have AC 3, hardness 8, and 1,170 hp per 10-foot section.
Unlike smaller cities, metropolises often have interior walls as well as surrounding walls—either old walls that the city has outgrown, or walls dividing individual districts from each other. Sometimes these walls are as large and thick as the outer walls, but more often they have the characteristics of a large city’s or small city’s walls.
Some city walls are adorned with watchtowers set at irregular intervals. Few cities have enough guards to keep someone constantly stationed at every tower, unless the city is expecting attack from outside. The towers provide a superior view of the surrounding countryside as well as a point of defense against invaders.
Watchtowers are typically 10 feet higher than the wall they adjoin, and their diameter is 5 times the thickness of the wall. Arrow slits line the outer sides of the upper stories of a tower, and the top is crenelated like the surrounding walls are. In a small tower (25 feet in diameter adjoining a 5-foot-thick wall), a simple ladder typically connects the tower’s stories and its roof. In a larger tower, stairs serve that purpose.
Heavy wooden doors, reinforced with iron and bearing good locks (Disable Device DC 30), block entry to a tower, unless the tower is in regular use. As a rule, the captain of the guard keeps the keys to the towers secured on her person, and second copies are in the city’s inner fortress or barracks.
A typical city gate is a gatehouse with two portcullises and murder holes above the space between them. In towns and some small cities, the primary entry is through iron double doors set into the city wall.
Gates are usually open during the day and locked or barred at night. Usually, one gate lets in travelers after sunset and is staffed by guards who will open it for someone who seems honest, presents proper papers, or offers a large enough bribe (depending on the city and the guards).
The other key distinctions between adventuring in a city and delving into a dungeon is that a dungeon is, almost by definition, a lawless place where the only law is that of the jungle: kill or be killed. A city, on the other hand, is held together by a code of laws, many of which are explicitly designed to prevent the sort of killing and looting that adventurers engage in all the time. Even so, most cities’ laws recognize monsters as a threat to the stability the city relies on, and prohibitions about murder rarely apply to monsters such as aberrations or evil outsiders. Most evil humanoids, however, are typically protected by the same laws that protect all the citizens of the city. Having an evil alignment is not a crime (except in some severely theocratic cities, perhaps, with the magical power to back up the law); only evil deeds are against the law. Even when adventurers encounter an evildoer in the act of perpetrating some heinous evil upon the populace of the city, the law tends to frown on the sort of vigilante justice that leaves the evildoer dead or otherwise unable to testify at a trial.
A city typically has full-time military personnel equal to 1% of its adult population, in addition to militia or conscript soldiers equal to 5% of the population. The full-time soldiers are city guards responsible for maintaining order within the city, similar to the role of modern police, and (to a lesser extent) for defending the city from outside assault. Conscript soldiers are called up to serve in case of an attack on the city.
A typical city guard force works on three 8-hour shifts, with 30% of the force on a day shift (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), 35% on an evening shift (4 p.m. to 12 a.m.), and 35% on a night shift (12 a.m. to 8 a.m.). At any given time, 80% of the guards on duty are on the streets patrolling, while the remaining 20% are stationed at various posts throughout the city where they can respond to nearby alarms. At least one such guard post is present within each neighborhood of a city (each neighborhood consisting of several districts).
The majority of a city guard force is made up of warriors, mostly 1st level. Officers include higher-level warriors, fighters, a fair number of clerics, and wizards or sorcerers, as well as multiclass fighter/spellcasters.
Different cities have different laws about such issues as carrying weapons in public and restricting spellcasters.
The city’s laws might not affect all characters equally. A monk isn’t hampered at all by a law about peace-bonding weapons, but a cleric is reduced to a fraction of his power if all holy symbols are confiscated at the city’s gates.