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How To Run Urban Campaigns in D&D

While cities in Dungeons & Dragons are jam-packed with adventure potential, it can be much harder for DMs to find the drama in an urban setting, versus that of the dungeon or wilderness.

This is largely because the Dungeon Master’s main tool – monsters – can’t be deployed with the same frequency and credibility in a city, as they can in a remote forest or abandoned ruins. Nor can three more of their favourite obstacles: hazards, puzzles and traps.

Without these go-to challenges to throw at their players, some DMs understandably struggle to create interesting urban scenarios, and end up using cities simply as home bases or travel nodes, rather than centres of adventure.

Classic artwork by Larry Elmore for the Cities of Mysteries 2e supplement.

Not only do we have to think about different types of challenges for players in an urban setting (or else put some thought into creating credible scenarios in which to deploy classic challenges like monsters, traps etc.!), but the outcomes of urban encounters play out differently.

If dungeon-based adventures throw up clear objectives with binary results – kill this monster or it will kill you, disarm this trap or take the damage, solve this puzzle or be locked out of the treasure vault, city adventures are far more nuanced, often with hazier objectives and nearly always with more shades of grey between success and failure.

The meat of a city campaign involves dealing with dodgy NPCs, such as corrupt politicians, shady business tycoons and ruthless criminals. These NPCs effectively take the place of a dungeon’s monsters, however they can rarely be killed with impunity, as the fabric of society (aka the law) protects them. Defeating an enemy NPC typically means getting one over on them in the short term, by foiling one of their schemes, rather than absolute victory. This at least comes with the advantage that the campaign’s ‘monsters’ get to survive and cross paths with the PCs again… which is great for building tension and animosity!

Indeed, while the city’s architecture (in the broadest sense of the word… locations, laws, customs etc) creates the campaign’s atmosphere, it’s the city’s inhabitants and their conflicting goals that create the drama. Memorable antagonists are therefore essential to an urban campaign’s success, while the DM’s goal is creating scenarios that allow players to push back against these villains’ goals and to make their impact on the city’s fortunes.

I’ve DMed two successful urban campaigns in the last few years, the first of which was Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, published by Wizards of the Coast, while the second is a modular campaign of my own design called Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs. For Dirty Jobs I use a West Marches or Adventurers League style structure, with each gaming session consisting of a one shot, or self-contained adventure, usually a ‘dirty job’ given to them by a faction or ally.  However, these one shots are linked by interconnecting threads, overarching antagonists and ‘fronts’ (developing threats), to maintain an epic campaign vibe.

This post will draw on lessons learnt during the running of those two campaigns and is also timed to celebrate the launch of the Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign guide – a free 5e D&D supplement that gives DMs all the tools they need to run a successful city campaign themselves!

A toolkit for urban adventure, free on the DMs Guild…

11 Tips for Running Urban Campaigns

Follow this advice to hit the city cobbles at a canter…

1. Create a Cool & Credible City…

Step one for running a successful city campaign is to generate excitement through the wonder of the city itself. Your campaign’s metropolis should contain several defining features for your players to marvel at – and interactive with! Colossal statues, canal networks, night markets, obsidian pyramids, wyvern taxis, or bridges made of dragon bones could all help elevate your city from generic fantasy fare into something that sparks the imagination of your players.

While it’s easier to map out a city in two dimensions, don’t make the mistake of ignoring how topography and geographical features shape the metropolis, specifically hills (ie. different elevations), rivers and coastline. Hint: a city with a port has a far wider adventure potential than a landlocked one!

A romantic sunset view over Dock Ward… (Art by WOTC).

Aside from the city’s geography and defining features, DMs need to populate their campaign location with a citizen body (which races/species live there? Is there a class or caste system?), create a political structure (how is the city governed?), draw up religious practices, sketch out a basic economy of imports and exports, and consider the letter of the local law before they get started.

While the above is undeniably fun, it’s also really time consuming. Which brings me to tip 2…

2. …Or Better Yet, Borrow One!

While building a city with just the power of your imagination is satisfying, and offers you an unparalleled creative control of your campaign, I’d strongly advise borrowing one to begin with.

The Herculean task of creating cool and credible city settings has already been undertaken many times by celebrated Dungeons Masters, game designers and world builders who – if you’re being objective – probably did a better job at it than you’re going to do. Their work is readily available in bookstores and online marketplaces and, IMHO, you’re creating a lot of unnecessary work for yourself if you ignore what’s out there and go solo, especially for your first rodeo.

A detailed map is a major boon of using an existing setting (by Mike Schley for WOTC).

I say that as someone who made this very mistake myself. For my very first 5e ‘campaign’ I started to sketch out a city based on classical Athens, hoping to recreate the complex politics of the Delian League and the city state’s constant wars with its martial neighbours. This was to be a grand showcase of how cool homebrew settings could be compared to the boring old Forgotten Realms the other DMs in our group played in! However, with all the prep I had to put into creating and running the adventure material, the city was only ever sketchily developed and just became a nebulous, ill-defined backdrop that added very little to the ‘campaign’. (I put apostrophes around campaign, because it only lasted a few sessions, before I wisely handed back the reins to one of the other DMs).

Since decamping to Waterdeep and the Sword Coast, my Dungeons & Dragons sessions have improved immeasurably, because all of that world building stuff is already taken care of (and having put my ego aside, I can say probably done better than I could do anyway!), and I can focus on prepping actual playable session material.

Picking up D&D again in 2016 (after a 20 year hiatus), and DMing frequently from 2019, Waterdeep was an obvious choice of city for me to run adventures in, as it’s the one that has got the most attention in the 5th edition era, most notably in the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist storyline that blends adventure with plenty of lore and the story I chose to run with. With a time cost of only a few hours reading, I was able to load my brain with a database of cool NPCs, factions, locations, history, government, local laws that would have taken me weeks to generate myself. While having a giant poster-size map of your campaign setting is an invaluable tool for DMs that saves even more time, just as it serves to inspire adventure ideas.

Not only that, but when I have needed some lore that is not presented in WDH, the Forgotten Realms wiki rarely disappoints, and I’ve also dived into old 3e and 4e sourcebooks for occasional bits and bobs I’ve needed. It’s such a boon to have all this material at your fingertips, and bordering on crazy to attempt to create it all yourself.

Of course, Waterdeep isn’t the only option DMs can choose from, with the Forgotten Realms alone offering up Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter, Thay, Port Nyanzaru and many more, while you could also investigate Sharn (Eberron), Ravnica, the Free City of Greyhawk, or any of the various settlements of Ansalon (Dragonlance), Wildemount or the Radiant Citadel worlds.

And that’s just the official D&D settings! If you’re open to exploring third party 5e publishers, you’ve got the likes of Drakkenheim, Iskander and Ptolus to name but a few.

3. What Is Threatening The City?

If you want to use the city as a base for running a series of unconnected one shots you certainly can, but an urban campaign tends to sing when they there are consistent dangers brewing in the background.

Growing threats can help make your bricks’n’mortar jungle feel more credible, as there are cogs and wheels that are turning, both on and offscreen (i.e. not only in the 4 hour window when the players turn up for a Sunday session). Such dangers can also provide overarching narratives so that the campaign doesn’t feel too disjointed… sure one week you can go off on a side quest to free the zoo’s depressed dinos, but next week you’re back to rooting out the cult that is recruiting more and more influential citizens. (Of course, you could make every session about combatting one major threat, but that would negate one of the big advantages of playing in a city… namely the potential for multiple threats as well as infinite side quests).

What’s behind the spontaneous combustion of Waterdeep’s townhouses? (Art by WOTC).

While I haven’t played the Dungeon World RPG, I know that their concept of ‘fronts‘ more or less match my idea of threats, and it’s worth reading around or watching some Youtube videos on how to run them. I particularly like their idea of ‘grim portents’, which are essentially incidents that signpost the looming danger, and build suspense and anticipation.

I should say too, for a city campaign, you could divide threats into external and internal threats.

An example of an external threat might be the return of dragons in the south and the gathering of a horde of draconian forces intent on marching north. Grim portents might be symbolic comets, terrible rumours, newspaper headlines, refugees arriving at the city, kobold raiding parties nearby etc..

An example of an internal threat, from my Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign guide, is the increasing influence of the politician Magnus Goldfist and the clergy of Tyr, who wish to enforce their radical vision of law and order on Waterdeep. Grim portents might be the suspicious deaths of Magnus’s political opponents, the building of a new temple district dedicated to Tyr (where Field Ward once stood), the replacement of the City Watch with the Hammers of Tyr etc. etc.

You should give the players plenty of chances to fight back against these threats… but it’s also well within your remit to dial up these threats off screen in a way they are powerless to prevent. Players can only be in so many places at once and fighting against fronts should feel a bit like building sandcastles to fend off the tide… especially at lower levels.

Assuming you want the majority of action to take place within the city limits, you’re going to want to generate more internal threats than external ones… although there are ways that external threats can manifest themselves close to home. Spies, informers, stooges, propagandists and assassins might all be acting for outside interests within the city walls, and intervening in their plans should present DMs with plenty of adventure scenarios.

4. Which NPCs are Behind These Threats?

As you think about what is threatening the city, you can simultaneously be thinking about the NPCs driving these threats. In effect, you’re creating the campaign’s villains!

These villains will often be the head of factions and should have a lot of clout in the city and plenty of agents who can act on their behalf. They might be (seemingly) legitimate politicians, nobles or business folk, acting openly around the city, or they might be elusive crimelords living in the shadows. Or both!

Probably the best content served up by Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the storyline’s four villains in the form of Xanathar, Jarlaxle, Manshoon and the Cassalanters, along with details of their retinue and maps of their home bases. All great stuff that can be used, reused or repurposed by DMs.

Dragon Heist‘s villains offer up memorable campaign material (Artwork by @jacobsontyler for WOTC).

For my Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign I kept Xanathar and Jarlaxle around, and added Magnus Goldfist, a cynical Cardinal Richelieu style politician, as well as Prince Bazzur Jabrini, an obese Chultian merchant inspired by Jabba the Hutt, and the Mucky Pigs faction, an anarchist group that uses violence and disruption to terrorise the citizenry. For each of the campaign villains, I noted down their short and long term goals (tied in with the threats to the city), and this helps me determine what they get up to offscreen while also providing me with plenty of adventure hooks. I suggest you do the same!

I personally find that 5th edition’s four categories of personal characteristics: “Ideal, Trait, Bond, Flaw” are really useful for sketching out a credible NPC in a very efficient and easy-to-reference way. It’s also handy to note down a person you can base their personality and mannerisms on, either from the real world or from fiction, to aid your roleplaying.

While most official D&D books include artwork for key NPCs, when I’m homebrewing I like to either source my own character art or include a physical description so I can create a picture in my players’ mind.

I plan to dedicate an entire post to creating memorable villains at some point, but many of the technique and points on this post about creating epic henchmen should be transferable. Which reminds me of another tip… give your villains badass henchmen!

5. Who Is On The PCs’ Side?

In a city, your players are never alone. There are always potential allies who share their ideals and goals, and who can help the party prevail against the oncoming tides of evil.

Obviously, you don’t want these allies to be too powerful or influential in comparison to the campaign’s villains. Otherwise your players won’t be needed!

“Before I let you out, I just need to know one thing…” (Art by WOTC).

The campaign allies serve to a) give out quests (often combatting the goals of the campaign villains) and b) help the party access vital items, services or information, while they also provide much of the social and roleplaying pillar of your campaign. Indeed, it’s likely your players will spend more time talking to allied NPCs than anyone else, so you want to give them fun and/or distinctive personalties and have a firm grip on how you will roleplay them.

6. Detail These 5 or 6 Key Locations (But Leave The Rest!)

Informed by some of the 2nd edition products published at the time, I remember painstakingly mapping out every last building of my homebrew cities, as a kid, complete with every last butcher, baker and candlestick maker. I probably don’t need to tell you that that was a fool’s errand!

To begin your campaign you only need to know the details of a handful of buildings and locations in the city. Assuming your players’ characters were born in the campaign city, you can let them homebrew details of their family homes for you to approve, but you will need to come up with a gathering point for them to regularly meet with each other. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist comes up with a pretty great device here, offering PCs a chance to win the deeds of an abandoned tavern for them to use as a joint home base. But otherwise a private function room in a tavern, or their favourite sofa at a coffeehouse, can suffice.

For Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs, I created an adventurer’s guild that runs its operations out of the back room of a small cafe. I needed only to decide the cafe’s location, invent an owner and pastry menu, then add a description of the back room, and the profile of the washed up adventurer behind the guild, and I had all the details I needed to bring this tinpot agency to life.

A favourite tavern is an obvious location to develop… (Art by WOTC).

Aside from a central meeting point, you’ll want to have a few details about places the PCs are likely to visit on a frequent basis, such as the local temple (assuming that the city has dozens of these, it’s best to choose one that aligns with a character’s god), a library (here, have a free library generator on me!), a tavern or two, and maybe a blacksmith and general market.

You might also want to place some of your NPC allies in these locations… Betty the salacious market trader might double as the PCs’ eyes and ears at the central market square and / or provide them with a black market for magic items. Pierre the well-spoken elven barman might be their repository of city history and lore, while cynical Sister Agnes might be able to furnish them with healing potions in return for services to her church.

Aside from these ‘go-to’ locations you should know something about those defining features we talked about in part 1, so that you can get the city’s unique vibe across to the players and furnish them with some cool and fascinating details. The city’s legendary founder killed the dragon on the bend of the river and then built three bridges with its bones. They say those who stand on the bridges are immune to fire, and certainly nothing has ever burnt on their spans.

Oh yeah, you might want to give some thought to what the city jail and law courts look like for when the players get arrested (they will definitely get arrested!).

7. Bringing The City To Life

The ever-insightful Alexandrian published a post on ‘running the city‘ which goes into detail about how to present your setting to your players. I don’t think I can do a better job than Justin, so go read!

The smells, sounds and sights of a night market could help bring your city to life (Art by Evyn Fong for WOTC).

I will also copy a piece of advice from my previous tip “you should know something about those defining features we talked about in part 1, so that you can get the city’s unique vibe across to the players and furnish them with some cool and fascinating details” and paste it here as well.

What makes your city different is what is going to stick in the mind of the players and bring the setting to life… with Waterdeep, for example, I often talk about the colossal Walking Statues and the towering spires of Castle Waterdeep, because they are the ever present visual scenery their characters will see every day and associate with the city. Aside from these monuments, I like to remind the players of the distinctive double decker dreys that trawl the major thoroughfares, and point out the occasional griffon cavalry rider flying overhead. Maybe I will even have a cab driver, or Waterdeep Wazoo vendor, address them in Docknee Rhyming Slang (a little local patois of my own invention!).

After that, it’s a good habit to reflect on how the current weather, and season, or simply the time of day, affect the landscape, and then feed these changes into your descriptions.

As you go into different districts you can zone in on specific local buildings and the districts’ unique characters (thinking about the sounds and smells, as well as sights can be a useful aid here!). You might find writing down a paragraph on each district and keeping it handy can jog your own memory/imagination, to make your job easier on game day.

8. Learn How to Run Fun Social Events

Part of the fun of an urban campaign is having the players attend various balls, parties and social occasions, but these events require some preparation beforehand to succeed.

Typically, you want to give your players a chance to rub shoulders with some of the city’s movers and shakers, and it can be particularly fun to give them a little window to engage with some of the campaign villains, as this is great for creating tension in a situation where violence is strictly prohibited and even insults need to be backhanded or sly in order to maintain decorum. A society ball can also be a great place for them to enlist a powerful ally with suitable roleplaying and successful charisma checks.

Social events play a major role in city campaigns (Art by WOTC).

Be careful, when running social events, of just presenting players a menu of NPCs they can approach and then sitting back… because the session will likely fall flat if the players don’t feel any pressing need to speak to any of them. It’s best practice to have a few little stimuli up your sleeve for players to respond to (a lady drops her fan, a drunk causes a statue to wobble perilously on its plinth, a waiter is given a beating by an entitled duke, a noble comments disparagingly on their dress sense). Otherwise you can plan for NPCs to approach the players, to sound them out, or else to provoke them, pump them for information, or to offer them a dirty job.

Apart from preparing a few potential conversations of interest, I also like to include some dice-rolling distractions whenever I run a social event: Performance checks for dancing, singing or telling jokes, a mix of Insight, Deception and Intelligence checks for games and gambling, and possibly even Dexterity checks for billiards, croquet or other tests of legerdemain. Aside from causing some mirth, high or low rolls on the above can change how the players are perceived by their fellow party-goers, and can even lead to you to improvise interesting new developments.

Another way to add intrigue to your event is to give the PCs a chance to overhear some juicy gossip, or see something they are not intended to see.

And, to guarantee a memorable session, I often press the nuclear button during social events and have a huge fight break out, or the safe’s alarm go off… but you don’t want to overuse this strategy. Sometimes a party should just be a party.

(Note: while many DMs let players get away with attending parties dressed in full plate, bearing pole arms etc., I don’t let players bring heavy armour, shields or two handed weapons to a social event. Aside from enforcing at least a drop of verisimilitude, this serves to remind players that they are in social mode not combat mode. It also means smaller secondary weapons and armour like chain shirt or leather have a purpose in the game).

9. Leverage Festivals

I was tempted to lump festivals into my tip on social events, but on second thoughts they are sufficiently different to warrant their own entry. Festivals offer a fantastic chance to reflect the local cultures of your setting and create a world that feels credible and alive. Unlike party-style social events, they are public too, often taking place on the city streets. This can make them more dangerous… (indeed, providing security during a festival, either in general, or as bodyguards for a VIP, can be a fun adventure scenario).

When running festivals in D&D, I tend to draw some inspiration from real world fiestas, and living in Spain affords me plenty of inspiration in that respect. Typically, you want to include some description of music, dance, parades, costumes and customs, and, given that they are nearly all religious in nature, some kind of holy rites add some authenticity.

Parades are great spectacles… but you also need to consider how the PCs can get involved! (Art by WOTC).

Because RPGs don’t really do ‘spectacle’ very well, you also need to give the players ways to get involved in the festival, and my go-to technique is to throw in some competitions. During a Deadwinter festival, for example, I gave my players a chance to compete at an axe throwing stall, enter an ice sculpture contest or even try their hand at ‘Toboggananza’, a downhill sleigh run through the steep narrow alleys of Dock Ward (which are covered in snow and ice at that time of year). One PC embarrassed themselves to such an extent that they are still itching to make amends at next year’s contest.

Aside from competitions, you can also incorporate some of the roleplaying opportunities of private social events, by having important NPCs show up at the festival… and again, a little list of potential incidents that are likely to provoke a player response will serve you well.

A festival’s religious rites might include the participation of attendees. Even better if this carries an element of risk and reward… pass a Charisma-based Religion check when you grab the hot coal and lay it at the feet of the holy statue and you receive a charm. Fail and you just get a burnt hand.

Random encounters, featuring the usual city shenanigans (drunks, pickpockets, thugs, fortune tellers, runaway animals etc etc), can also help ensure something interesting happens during a festival.

10. Get Out Of The City Every So Often

Just because you’re running a city campaign, doesn’t mean you can’t leave the metropolis. In fact, around 40% of the adventures I’ve run for my Dirty Jobs campaign involved leaving Waterdeep on a local (or even faraway) mission. Most of those missions were to combat the goals of the campaign villains, so the adventures’ repercussions were still felt in Waterdeep… but running every single session within the city limits is going to feel claustrophobic, and possibly repetitive, pretty quickly.

Take the train out of town on occasion…. (Artwork by WOTC).

Delivering messages, intercepting enemy agents, protecting VIPs on their travels, transporting important items, or plain old monster hunts are all good reasons to get out of Dodge for a session or two. And to unleash some fireballs far from the watchful eye of the city constabulary.

11. F*** It! Stick a Dungeon Under the City!

An easy way to keep all your options on the table, even during an urban campaign, is simply stick a sprawling dungeon underneath the city’s foundations. This actually makes perfect sense. Many modern European cities are built on the remains of earlier incarnations of themselves, effectively creating a warren of rooms and tunnels beneath the city.

Moreover, there are plenty of good reasons why past or present rulers or factions might have constructed a subterranean undercity, where none had existed (or modified an existing one): for security, to bury their dead, to conduct secret activities etc.. An extensive sewer system can also function as a dungeon (or the first layer of one).

Turns out there’s a dragon in a dungeon after all! (Art by WOTC).

This is definitely one of the advantage of running a campaign in Waterdeep, because you get not only Undermountain (extensively detailed in Dungeon of the Mad Mage), but Skullport too. And that’s on top of the usual city sewers, cellars and vaults.

If you can’t make a dungeon under the city fit your campaign, you could simply place some ancient ruins in a forest or mountain nearby, for when your feel that your players need a good old-fashioned delve.

BONUS TIP. An Adventurer’s Guild is a Cool Device

While far from essential, one aspect of my Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign that has worked particularly well is starting the campaign with the premise that all the characters are members of an adventurers guild looking for work. This helps set the right expectations straight away and steer players away from creating problematic characters who are totally unsuited to the adventurer’s life.

Don’t worry, this contract is just a minor formality… to protect your interests.

It also gives the PCs a place to congregate (the guild’s base), and for my campaign I created some fun terms and conditions that I like to torture my players with. Namely a 20% cut of not only the job’s fee but also any treasure found while on guild duty.

This means if they find any magic items they must either sell those items and pay the guildmaster 20% of the revenue, or else they can keep the item and owe the guild the 20%… to be taken out of their future earnings. It means keeping magic items is very expensive, which in turn means my players are never blasé about collecting coin, and are always motivated to do the next dirty job that comes their way.

Generating Adventure Scenarios for Urban Campaigns

As I mentioned at the start of this post, it’s not as easy to create city adventures as dungeon crawls. But with the help of a few prompts and tools, and just getting into the creative zone, I’m confident you will actually find comfortably more scenarios, and most probably better ones, than you can dream up in the desert, jungle or dungeon.

One handy exercise to help generate city adventure ideas is to go through the 9 different types of RPG quests and think about how you would apply them to an urban setting.

1. Fetch Quests. What does a fetch quest in a city look like? A heist of course! Or a prison break (which is a subdivision of heist… just you’re stealing a person not the crown jewels). Keys from the Golden Vault shows you how varied heists can be (casinos, banks, trains, museums, forts, palaces, guildhalls can all be heisted!). Meanwhile, if you took my advice in tip 11, you can still send your players on a classic fetch quest into a dungeon to retrieve an object at the behest of an allied faction.

2. Delivery Quests. This quest type is more or less the same as always… the players must transport an item or information across the city (or to a different city… this usually makes more sense), while enemy agents or plain old hazards and monsters stand in their way. You could also have the players deliver a message or ultimatum from the city to some shady crimelord like Xanathar… I’m sure the beholder won’t force them to battle in its fighting pit before it deigns to hear them out!

3. Protect Quests. Cities offer plenty of opportunities for protection quests… players might be hired as bodyguards, security guards against theft or violence, or they might have to help repel some monsters at the gates or coming up from the sewers. My new adventure, Nightstalker, challenges the players to patrol Dock Ward for two nights, while a sadistic killer is on the loose.

4. Destroy Quests. Monsters hunts are the classic example of destroy quests and players could easily be recruited to head into the local woods to deal with any type of nasties, or perhaps down into the sewers. Keeping it more city-centric, they may be hired to raid a criminal stronghold, burn down a warehouse full of drugs, or assassinate a mindflayer who is operating several thralls in the city.

5. Investigation Quests. These type of quests belong in the city more than anywhere else. We’re talking about murder mysteries and other detective cases, such as the theft of priceless objects or to find out what happened to a missing person. These are the hardest and most time consuming types of adventures to write, in my experience, and I ended up buying Rats of Waterdeep in order to be able to drop a fun murder mystery into my campaign. DMs with more time might want to check out Candlekeep Murders, which starts as a delivery/fetch quest from Waterdeep (or any other city you choose).

Mysteries are easier to solve when you can eat someone’s brain to access their memories… (Art by WOTC).

6. Negotiation Quests. Another model that belongs in the city, players might be sent to treat with diplomats, terrorists or crimelords for favourable terms, or else be employed to persuade local politicians to vote one way or other. It can be hard to find enough drama in a negotiation quest to fill out a session, but you could consider measuring success over a number of skills checks, using a progress clock to keep track of success vs. failure. Negotiations often involve some mutual back scratching… the crime lord might agree to stop robbing Castle Ward businesses if the players take out a rival on their behalf.

7. Survival Quests. Survival quests don’t easily fit into an urban campaign, as they are about getting out of sticky situations that usually only dungeons or the wilderness throw up. A nearby volcano erupting or a dragon attack, which the heroes are clearly not powerful enough to repel, could definitely create a survival situation but such scenarios would rather destroy the setting you were presumably planning to use for future adventures.

8. Attain Quests. Attain quests (which I wrote about on this post) might not actually be a distinct quest type on further thought… more like a longterm character goal, or the rewards of undertaking other quest models. However, attaining ‘renown’ with different factions is a very city-centric objective, and using the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to quantify PCs’ standings with various organisations could motivate players who like to see quantifiable results.

9. Combination Quests. In D&D, one type of quest quickly morphs into another. Indeed, the best adventures often combine elements of multiple quest models, and cities arguably make it even easier to do this, with so many locations and NPCs in close proximity.

Hopefully that exercise got you thinking already… otherwise just keep an eye out for useful tools and resources that you can leverage.

A great source of ideas and inspiration for me are the quest cards of the Lords of Waterdeep board game. Any of these one line quests could serve as the seed of a great adventure, and there are dozens of them.

These quest cards make great adventure seeds…

Meanwhile, you really don’t have to look far for inspiration in today’s RPG landscape. A quick search on the DMs Guild reveals these Waterdeep Quest Seeds and this list of 200 Urban Random Encounters to get the juices flowing, while I can testify to the handiness of the semi-official Waterdeep: City Encounters supplement. The Dragon Heist faction missions are also excellent one shot adventure fodder, and they have been expanded here.

Books like Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots and Jeff Ashworth’s Random Encounters can also be great sources of inspiration, and while I never use them in game, creative d100 tables can help fire up those neurons. Oh look, here’s one tailored to city quests.

Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs Campaign Guide

If all this city talk has got you salivating at the idea of a juicy urban adventure or two, why not pick up my free supplement, the Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign guide? This book is essentially a structure for you to easily build your own urban campaign, featuring a bunch of threats, villains, allies, scenarios and seeds that will make creating city-based adventures for your players a cinch.

Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs come with 4 free stat blocks… get it here!

I personally play my Dirty Jobs campaign as a series of one shots, which makes the structure even more flexible, as I can drop in official and third party modules into my campaign at any time… as can you!

Nightstalker Adventure (A Dirty Job That Needs Doing!)

Much as I love adventure seeds and ideas, there’s nothing more valuable to me as a DM than a well written adventure I can play out of the box! So I wanted to give anyone keen to kickstart a Dirty Jobs campaign a compelling adventure to get them started. Nightstalker combines aspects of horror and mystery, with a classic D&D quest… that of completing a Night Watch (or two) of the city streets.

The adventure introduces some of the campaign themes and emerging threats to Waterdeep, with exploration of Dock Ward, flavourful random encounters and a main quest: discover the identity of the Nightstalker and put an end to their killing spree.

The Nightstalker… probably just needs a belly rub! (Nah, it’s f’ing deadly!).

It could easily be transposed to any other city with a harbour district.

More D&D Advice…

Ok, this has been the latest in a series of posts about running different types of adventures, so if you’re new to the blog check out the articles below and please do subscribe (right sidebar) to get notified about future D&D goodness…

How To Run (Murder) Mystery Adventures in D&D

Designing & Running Heists in 5e D&D

How To Run An Epic Gladiatorial Adventure

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Your Experiences Running Urban Adventures…

Please do also share your own tips and success stories (and instructive failures) for running city campaigns in the comments section below.

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How To Run An Epic Gladiatorial Adventure

5 Comments

  1. Jose

    Thanks for this, I definitely agree with you on making it easier for yourself and using some material pre-scripted as a great piece of advice. My only main contribution would be on how your cities can be a great source of adventures and also a great hub for breaks from more traditional dungeon crawling or faraway adventuring.

    On my running campaign, which started with the Icespire Peak Dragon campaign included in the Starter Set, the team often were visiting Neverwinter and it became a source of distraction from the main adventuring. Trips there on the way from Phandalin to other locations in the Sword Coast always included a stop on the Iron Flagon to:
    – do some shopping in town,
    – expand the “factions” that were hinted by the Campaign text (Halia’s connections in the underbelly of Neverwinter, or connections to the governance through the Townmaster were easy)
    – visit locations that I sort of had to run on the go, like one of the players favourite NPC, Auntie Bones, which lived in a hut by the Chasm, ran a gang of little informants and pickpockets (children mostly) and became a source of rustic magical items generated using body parts from the monsters the players had killed
    – have adventures on the go like a visit to a Bath House (The Dolphin, I named it, placed by one of the city bridges) that went South fast, or one flashy party held on the city top clubbing spot, Moonstone Mask.
    -having an auction for White Dragon body parts when they defeated the dragon. River Market took part as the scenario, which obviously ended up in a fight which ended with the City Watch involved.
    -and finally, making use of the local journalists to promote themselves/get info/look for new adventures. I used the Neverwinter Nights tabloid as a source of information and promotion for the gang, which added a lot to the city flavour. From being a bunch of oddballs making trouble to “you are the ones from the newspaper” can add a lot of flavour to the campaign.

    As you said, having all that info ready at the click of a button in the DM Guild or the wiki was invaluable.

    I will add that it is always handy to have very clear a list of NPCs that you have pre-worked on, namely a City Watch Captain or Sargeant (the players will be interrogated by, or going to for missions, or having as an adversary), a few innkeepers, a leader or two of the city underbelly, and also informants from factions that you want to include in your campaign. Even a party of competitor adventurers could be a lot of fun, occasionally getting the McGuffin ahead of the players just to up the intensity of the campaign. I have had a lot of fun as a player or DM with that concept, and it seems a lot more suitable in a crowded city.

    • duncan

      Hey Jose

      Thanks for sharing those stories… a dragon parts auction sounds like a fun, player-driven idea!

      I think you’re right, in that cities can offer a nice change of pace to dungeons / wilderness, either as stop offs for procuring services and/or information, for buying or selling goods, or just boozing and carousing. I guess the point of this article is to show that the meat of the adventure (or even campaign) can take place in a city too… high stakes action can happen too, not just downtime activities.

      Great point about NPCs… I think I meant to include some advice along those lines, but then totally forgot, so thanks for the reminder. In general, it’s a good idea to have a list of names, one line physical descriptions and personality traits for random NPCs, which you can draw from to instantly create a barkeep, roadsweep, captain of the guard etc., just as you say.

      Rival parties are also great, esp. if you they are trying to complete some of the same quests as your PCs (a monster hunt can become a race to find the beast first!), or aiming to achieve renown with the same factions etc. I also love engineering run ins with the PCs and their rivals in various social situations, and have their rivals throw out some cutting jibes and insults (to humiliate them in public basically)! I leaned into these scenes heavily in my adventure DRAGONBOWL, with the pay-off for the PCs being a chance to fight their rivals in the Dragonbowl Arena.

      Cheers for now!

      D.

  2. Dorothy McComb

    I’ve been using the Catalyst Citybook series, available from Flying Buffalo on DriveThru, since Citybook I was published in 1982. Each of the seven books in the series has a variety of establishments with full maps, character descriptions, and plot hooks, organized by themes such as Up Town, Deadly Nightside, and Port o’Call. The series is system agnostic. These are great for when you need to plug something in on short notice, or your PCs are looking for a little fast cash. You can drop them into Waterdeep or any other city you’re using. After more than forty years, I think these books still have a lot to offer.

    • duncan

      Hi Dorothy, great thanks for the recommendation, they look like a cool resource. I’ve stuck in some links so people can check them out on Drivethru and pick them up if they’re interested! They look like a great way to fill out some of the campaign window dressing, so DMs can focus more on the main dramatic action…. is there one in particular you would recommend?

  3. Justin

    I am running an entire urban campaign at the moment (Hell’s Rebels, written for Pathfinder 1e but converted to pf2e). It’s absolutely fantastic.

    To add to your great list of thoughts and advice:

    * one of the biggest benefits of staying in one place is that you get recurring NPCs. Players LOVE these. They can be story-significant, or just ‘flavour extras’ like the local meat pie merchant, a bright young urchin who feeds them local gossip, the street preacher prophesying doom, etc. A benefit for GMs is that you too can roleplay a character in some ongoing fashion, and even have them respond and adapt to the unfolding story and relations with the PCs.
    * bringing the city to life requires a balance between over and under narration, which will be table dependent. But even just a few sentences about the streets, the sights and sounds and smells of the city and its inhabitants, a casual reference to someone hawking goods, witnessing a petty theft down a side alley or someone being arrested by the town guards while pleading innocence … some of these could be micro-encounter hooks, but in my experience mostly work best as pure immersive narration. In my campaign, I sometimes use these to showcase the tyranny of the government (that is literally backed by Hell, mandates diabolism as the state religion, and has, well, let’s say it has a racism problem (which our group chose to lightly veil but not remove entirely, after a good session zero discussion), setting the stairs for the PCs and giving the PCs (and players) added motivation for the adventure goal.
    * Political intrigue can add an additional layer to the story, especially for player groups who like complex factions and moral shades of grey. Waterdeep Dragon Heist obviously showcases this well. Hell’s Rebels does so in an entirely different way, since the goal is overthrowing a (brilliantly written) tyrant, and to do that you need to make alliances with some people you probably don’t like. I’ve fleshed this out further than the published book, adding a small number of simplified political questions for their ‘revolutionary manifesto’ that the PCs have to wrestle with, and in which those powerful NPCs the rebels want support from will have their own (conflicting) ideas and demands. This opens up social influence encounters as ‘serious business’ with game-altering effects, which with other more frequent social encounters you get from being in a city means that socially strong but combat weak characters can shine and are in fact ‘powerful’ (while pure DPR-focused minmax builds have to deal with the consequences of their choices, which is being less important in these situations).
    * if the PCs are from the city the adventure is based in, they can have strong NPC bonds in their backstories. These can be a mix of ‘unimportant’ people like family members, but. I like to give each of them a connection to a named NPC too, to tie them into the story and add motivation (though they obviously won’t yet know how that person is important). Because Paizo gives excellent Players Guides for their adventure paths, all I had to do was encourage them to write in a connection (positive, negative, or conflicted) to someone named in the players guide.
    * It is also much easier to tie each PCs main personal motivation/goal (hunt down the person who killed my wife and daughter / find my abandoned illegitimate tiefling half sister whose existence is a family secret and source of shame / etc) into the main story in single-city campaigns, as it’s easier for the antagonists from those backstories to be there. All I had to do was work with the players and find an NPC who matched (or could be easily tweaked to match). I’m most cases in my HR campaign, it was easy to use the 4 lieutenants for this, really biding the PCs and thus players into the story and giving them strong motivations for the adventure hooks. Plus I got to use the above mentioned recurring NPCs opportunity to have those same NPCs appear on screen from time to time!

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