I used to dread running urban games. There’s a reason, of course. I was terrible at them. The density of a city meant that while there may have been a lot of things to do, it was easy to tell myself that NPCs would do those things before players got involved. Fact of the matter is, many of my cities were unreasonably nice places to live. Sure, there were horrible things in the shadows as needed. But while you often want a fictional city to be “nice” enough that players want to identify with it and call it home, I would too often have Good Men in positions of power, Commissioner Gordon-types who would be staunch allies to heroic players. This is a good thing in many ways, but it does mean that sometimes you have trouble when players ask “Why don’t we just tell the police/town guard about this?”
(The best answer, of course, is “Cops got better things to do than get killed.” But it does not always apply.)
So gradually I began to live by the principle that even in nice, orderly, well-run cities there are things going on that will occupy the attention of the various powers-that-be. I needed situations, basically. Not adventures, but ongoing situations. If you were to walk into the captain of the guard’s office and ask him “What’s going on?”, and he trusted/liked you enough to tell you, there should be a more interesting answer than “Nothing.”
One of the first methods I tried was borrowed from the World of Darkness, of course. I refer to the relationship map: start figuring out who the people in power are, and link them. Naturally, you want to have interesting people in power. For me, it’s not a dynamic relationship map unless it’s got a lamia or werewolf or doppleganger or djinn somewhere involved. (Or something else if it’s a map you’d expect to be all werewolves, for instance.) I like maps like this best if they fit on a Post-It, something I can tuck into a book. I have great admiration for more complicated maps like this one which Zak S. redid from Warhammer’s Enemy Within, but I am unlikely to hold myself to this standard.
The other method I’m very fond of (which is compatible with the former one!) was devising intrigues by social circle. The idea is that the dominant concerns among each social circle naturally form intrigues, presumably ones that would intersect with one another. The social circles may vary by what game you’re running. In a Werewolf game, I’d likely pick one per tribe, and possibly one per major pack or territory. Even if I didn’t have all the packs mapped out, answering these questions might help flesh out those packs better. Comparatively, a D&D city intrigue questionnaire is based on what I consider the “four adventuring food groups”: military (fighter/martial), arcane (wizard/arcane), religious (cleric/divine), and criminal (rogue/seedier martial). To these I would also add “noble” (ruling/governing class) and “mercantile” (merchant/middle class), as these social circles are traditional co-chairs of the Most Likely To Hire Adventurers Club. You could probably also add “peasantry” (lower-class) or “nature” (druid/primal) if they seemed apt, or racial social classes like “elves”, or your favorite fantasy motif like “death” (necromancers/death priests/undead). Whichever you feel are most relevant.
So let’s take D&D as an example, and assume a group of six social circles (food groups + noble/mercantile). The questions are to suggest situations of import both for the elite in a social circle, and for a more street-level concern. The idea is that players of relatively low social standing are likely to run into the lower-level situations quickly, but might clue into the higher-level situations if they’re savvy or well-connected or just roll really well. I would then ask myself these questions about a city:
1- What is the dominant concern among the military elite? What is a low-level military concern?
2- What is the dominant concern among the religious elite? What is a low-level religious concern?
3- What is the dominant concern among the criminal elite? What is a low-level criminal concern?
4- What is the dominant concern among the arcane elite? What is a low-level arcane concern?
5- What is the dominant concern among the nobility? What is a low-level aristocratic concern?
6- What is the dominant concern among the merchant elite? What is a low-level mercantile concern?
Yes, twelve basic concerns are probably more than I’d be likely to address in play: but the idea is that if characters talk to any NPCs at all, they will talk to NPCs who are loosely connected to either an “adventuring food group” (military, religious, arcane, criminal, nature) and the Most Likely To Hire Adventurers social classes. No matter who a player contacts, they’ll find out something interesting going on in the city — but the information and intrigue is personalized by source, so it feels relevant that, say, the paladin talks to a church superior and gets a religious-facing intrigue. Said intrigue may also be more pertinent to the paladin’s interests.
For my part, I didn’t need detailed answers. Just enough to give me some ideas. So, let’s take a sample city, something like an Arabian Nights-styled port city.
1) Higher level, military: The sultan’s elite mamluk regiment is ailing from a strange disease, or perhaps curse, that they are trying to hide for fear of showing the city to be weak. Lesser concern: A captain is press-ganging warriors to go against a particularly fearsome band of corsairs.
2) Higher level, religious: An imam has suspicions about the mamluk regiment, and is attempting to discover if they have profaned a holy site while on campaign. Lesser concern: Dervishes have arrived in the city, seeking a stolen holy scroll of prophecy.
3) Higher level, criminal: A crimelord plots to steal the Sultana’s enchanted sword, and has seeded three agents in her court. Lesser concern: A gang is doing a brisk trade in a narcotic derived from ghul saliva.
4) Higher level, arcane: A jinn bound into the pommel of the Sultana’s enchanted sword schemes to be freed. Lesser concern: A clockmaker-artificer is creating automata to assassinate old enemies.
5) Higher level, royal: The Sultana suspects that her eldest child is not entirely human, and worries that a supernatural being — perhaps a jinn — lay with her in the guise of her consort. Lesser concern: An infatuated and unscrupulous noble schemes to kidnap or charm the daughter of a notable.
6) Higher level, mercantile: Unscrupulous merchant-lords are promoting the threat of war with a nearby city-state in order to drive up demand for steel goods. Lesser concern: Trade caravans are going missing at a nearby oasis. Wait, is this an intrigue or an adventure hook? An intrigue, so some of the local merchants must be suspected responsible, or responsible and trying to cover it up.
Those took me about as much time to think up as they did to type up, and it was easy to brainstorm some just by linking them to others — the Sultana’s sword, for instance, or the threat of war coinciding with the ailing elite regiment. (Extra bonus: they’re fun to think up.) And when the players started poking around, I can easily tell which rumors they may run into just by who they’re asking. If they run into a particularly well-connected barber or storyteller, I could always roll a d6. If I need a reason why potential allies can’t just drop everything and help them, these intrigues supply an answer: the captain would love to help, but is caught up in this press gang mess, for instance. I would happily run a game that revolved around this city.
I’ve field tested these techniques a couple of times. So far? They work quite well. The players are almost spoiled for choice when it comes to options, but the neat thing about intrigues is that they aren’t mandatory: if the players aren’t interested in a particular one, it will eventually resolve itself by morphing into another intrigue. There’s no need to punish the players for not solving every problem that exists in the world — when they step into more than one intrigue at the same time, they will probably feel “punished’ enough. Or at least, beset with adversity — in a good way.
It surprises me somewhat that I now enjoy running games in urban environments. As a person, naturally I am still a creature of trees and mountains and fields and streams, not of alleys and cramped streets and too many damn people. I want nothing to do with intrigues in real life, I suppose. But the gameable kinds, the sorts that involve socialization and treachery and outbreaks of violence — yeah, those have grown on me rather nicely since I figured out a way to get them to work for me.