December 01, 2008

Bright Torchlight, Big City

As has been (very kindly I might add) touted on the websites of Mike Ferguson & Ken Hart, Dungeon Crawl Classics #60 Thrones of Punjar is coming to a store near you in the near future. A late Christmas present if you will. I'm pretty psyched, as this is my first full-length adventure since The Scaly God (which holds a dear place in my heart but feels pretty ancient to me now). I appreciate having the opportunity to hurl another adventure at the masses—this time 4th Edition! I love the cover work of Eric Lofgren too.

City Adventures used to scare the hell out of me. The idea of running a campaign in the big city—be it Greyhawk, Waterdeep, etc.—was pretty terrifying. I prefer straight corridors and known quantities (a la The Tomb of Horrors, natch) as opposed to wide open spaces where the PCs may run amuck. As a DM, you gotta be able to think on your feet with even the best written/created city adventure.

This said, the best regular campaign I ever ran took place in a small city, specifically Fax on the Greyhawk's Wild Coast. We met for play every 2 weeks like clockwork, which gave the campaign the ease of time (something I desperately lack these days) and NPCs actually had time to develop. The PCs were befriended by a trio of shadowy yet good NPCS: Lasturne, grey elf owner of a mysterious curio shop (think of the Friday the 13th TV series and mentally you're heading in the right direction), Sharill, thief-in-training and member of the local guild, and Darksot, reformed thief with a hidden past. Added to the mix was Mentorian, wizard at large, and the guard captain Duncan. On the darker side was guardsman Ceril (a wererat that betrayed the party eventually and earned their wrath), the "evil cleric" Selyular (the bag guy who always seemed to get away), and Darnek, a bandit underling of the dreaded Silver Dagger cult that eventually joined the PCs for a time until meeting his end at the business-end of a ballista bolt. Rounding out things were an endless supply of haggling merchants, jovial bartenders, and local pickpockets.

If reading the above NPC descriptions makes things sound fluid, they were. The city environment allowed the PCs to run into the same NPCs again and again, there to bargain with them, trick them, and even at times woo them for favors. The NPCs followed their own agendas and slowly gained levels when the PCs weren't around. Good guys turned to evil, and at least one bad guy turned to good. Nothing was black and white.

I soon came to love the city forrmat, because it allowed a depth of play unmatched elsewhere. The players began to "write their own adventures" simply by what they wished their PCs to do. Want to visit Mentorian for wizardly training? There was a little "errand" to run first ... oh, and never mind that bitter ex-apprentice that thirsts for revenge. Want to join the thieves guild? Prove your worth via a bit of daring burglary in the high quarter and they'll allow you to run their trap-filled maze and qualify for membership. I planted adventure seeds everywhere I could, layered subplots over subplots, and let the dice roll where they may. (I'm still sad they never discovered that dimensional portal called the Dragongate hidden in the curio shop.) My players were charitable when needed—they endured a lot of names made up on the spot (they joked me that names starting with a D were spur-of-moment names, which they usually were)—but they seemed to love it. It was a great campaign that went on for nearly three years.

I can't speak much about Thrones at this point, except to say that my intent was to capture a bit of that "adventure seeds" concept, while also making a big city like Punjar feel dark, dirty, and almost claustrophobic. I wanted to provide both safe havens and dangerous places that the PCs might wish to give more than one visit. Did I succeed? Time will tell. But the adventure was terribly fun to write and soon took a life of its own, which is always a good sign. Here's to the city!
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