Coppers and cobblestones: running an urbancrawl campaign

by Connor Eddles

Coppers and cobblestones: running an urbancrawl campaign
April 25, 2020 Connor Eddles

Prepwork. What a dirty word. Of course, every gamesmaster (GM) in the world has had a session they’ve entirely ad-libbed after a week of just not having the energy to prepare. But to stay consistent and have a decent campaign, you do need to prep, otherwise eventually the players find you out. It’s the part of the hobby that feels like homework, and I’ve yet to meet a GM who would rather prep than just play the damn game. 

But this article is going to be about the most prep-heavy campaign of this GM’s career so far. No random tables (except for wandering monsters, because I’m old on the inside). No plotlines made up out of the ether that somehow work anyway. And absolutely no fudging. The dice land out in the open, no matter what. 

You see, I’ve got a bit of Dark Lord Fatigue. Anyone who has read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) probably understands the reference. It occurs when you’ve been playing too many tabletop roleplaying games that conform to the typical structure. A band of plucky murderhobos go around stealing and killing until they’re high enough level for the GM to throw some evil bastard with a black cloak and spiky helmet in their way. He’ll mess with them in non-fatal ways, give a few monologues, and generally irritate the player characters to the point where they want to apply their usual brand of ultra-fast judgement to him. 

Rampant cynicism aside, that brand of heroics absolutely isn’t the only way to run a campaign. In this article, I’m going to be laying out ways to build an urban sandbox to drop your players into. This could be the whole sandbox or merely one segment of a continent or world, if you have the time and energy. 

The city itself is the beating heart of any urbancrawl, and plotting a city requires a map. For my campaign I decided to go for a classic, and hunted down a digital copy of the map from 1978’s City State Of The Invincible Overlord. The map in question has everything you could want from a sandbox: alleys twist and fold in on each other, buildings are labelled and stocked with every sort of business imaginable. Why’s the spear-maker next to a shop that sells nothing but cages? Capitalism! Probably. 

There is, however, a bit of a content issue. City State is a setting that involves a great deal of slavery akin to that of the Roman Empire. This may be a problematic subject for players and GMs alike, and although the cliens system of Rome is pretty different to our modern persective on slavery, it’s still treating people’s freedom as a commodity. In the setting I’m building for my campaign, slavery is used as an alternative to the prison system. This makes for a lot of free, poor-quality labour and a nice slew of plot hooks that the players will want to get tangled in. Again though, emotive and political subjects should be brought up before any prep is done, so checking in with the players before the game is important. This is supposed to be fun, after all. 

For the prep, I’m using a program called LegendKeeper, which essentially combines a digital pinboard with an internal wiki for whatever worldbuilding you’d like to do. The first fundamental step is uploading the City State map and assigning a pin to every building and point of interest upon it. While incredibly tedious, this will make the later steps of actually creating content much easier. 

But what really defines content for a sandbox like this? The answer, irritatingly, is up to you. Cleaving to classic tropes and putting some catacombs under the city seems appropriate. Crime should be rampant, because utopias are boring. Lots of colourful gangs à la The Warriors for player characters to join, crush, or otherwise deal with. 

Content itself is heavily influenced by whatever roleplaying system you choose to run your campaign with. John Harper’s Blades In The Dark is a beautiful system if your players want to be criminals and operate on a mission-based campaign structure. However, I’d like something a bit more old-school and open-ended. Enter Chris McDowall’s Into The Odd, a superb lightweight game that draws most of its DNA from the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons

Into the Odd is a system that emphasises all-too-human characters at early levels. Direct combat is likely to be lethal, but the speed of creating new characters means that players can jump back in almost immediately. This makes it a very useful system for our city sandbox, with introducing new characters being as easy as stumbling into someone new on the street. It also means that encounters won’t need to be fine-tuned to the nth degree, as players will be encouraged to think laterally and find alternative solutions to any obstacles. 

And this brings us to the heart of any good prepwork for a campaign: the obstacles themselves. Obviously every group of players will be different, and getting their buy-in should be the easiest way to have a fun campaign. But what kind of fun should be in a city sandbox? 

There’s no such thing as incorrect fun, of course. But campaigns that have a focus on a few types of conflict are much easier to handle. And for a city campaign such as this, the two main sources of conflict are probably going to be social and physical. Social because urban centers are rife with disparate groups who all want something from each other, and physical because slinging swords never gets old. 

To make these conflicts intense and exciting, we arguably don’t want a peaceful, well-run city. To quote a famous space monk, we want a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The kind of city you’d see on the news, usually with headlines involving the words “food shortages” or “crippling drug epidemic”. Of course, there are a number of real issues such as systemic poverty, gentrification, and the war on drugs that might be too heavy-going for a Saturday night dungeon crawl. But if your players are comfortable with it, the stories you can tell will be rich and fraught with drama and intrigue. 

Every city has a purpose. Our city will be a pleasure district, somewhere tourists flock to in order to indulge their fantasies and desires away from their humdrum home lives. This gives us as gamemasters a number of hooks to put in our urban sandbox. Tourists make for great kidnapping victims, but they can also be insensitive prats who cause fights and break things. Or, if the players are of a more larcenous mindset, they’re superb marks for confidence schemes or simple back-alley robbery. 

The influx of tourists also shapes industry. Away from the main streets with their cheap trinkets and souvenirs, the aforementioned back alleys have all manner of illegal things that an outlander could partake in. Drugs, underground pit fights, exotic pets that definitely aren’t juvenile bound demons… Again, plenty of disasters waiting to happen. 

But what if your players don’t want to put out fires? What if they take one look at this great rotten city and decide it needs to go?

Even better. Depending on how obvious and violent the players want to be, the whole city could be turned into one great overland dungeon for them to destroy. I’d advise giving the players some kind of secure hideout, and a few non-player characters who are sympathetic to their cause. Playing fanatics or revolutionaries can be challenging, but very rewarding with the right playgroup.

For my campaign, the players are going to be constables of the watch. Working as a police force in a corrupt, decadent city where crime is the norm should give them a number of challenges to tackle or ignore. And ignoring these challenges definitely won’t make them go away. Using the fronts system from Dungeon World, I can track a number of GM-controlled threats to the players, creating the illusion of a progressing world outside of what the players see and touch. Antagonists and allies have their own agendas, and those agendas should be at odds more often than not.

Even the players don’t have a unified goal; one already wants to go crooked and on the payroll of a crime boss within the city. Of course, any of my players reading this are going to be terribly paranoid of each other’s characters selling them out. What a pity! Players killing each other isn’t usually advised, unless you’re playing Paranoia (1986), but a healthy dose of paranoia in other gamers can make the stakes even higher. 

At the end of the day, an urbancrawl sandbox is going to be fundamentally different from your usual plotted campaign. Any heroics are going to arise organically, and your underdog players could rise to remake the city… Or bring it crashing down forever. And to me, that will always be more interesting than even the best quest to take down a 2D Sauron-analogue. 


Related media for your urbancrawl campaign could include:


  • Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. This novel and its sequels occasionally veer towards the farcical, but they’re a superb look at constables of the watch in a city that almost certainly doesn’t care about them, right up until it does. It also gives a number of archetypes for player characters to emulate, like the washed-up sergeant or the naive new recruit. The Watch, a new television series loosely based on the novels, is coming out this year.
  • Homicide by David Simon. This isn’t fantasy at all; in fact, it’s a real piece of journalism, covering Simon’s year with Baltimore homicide detectives. The book delves into their personal lives, the struggles with different cases and the red tape that chokes the life out of their ambitions. 
  • Mordheim, Games Workshop’s classic tabletop skirmish game, has a rulebook full of incredible gothic art and a ruined city aesthetic that continues to inspire fans to this day. If you’re happy to include truly disturbing, twisted antagonists, the cults and crazies of Mordheim will be fantastic material. The rulebook is sadly out of production, but second-hand copies are frequently available. 
  • The City and The City. China Miéville’s 2009 novel was adapted into a television series in 2018. The premise is pretty complex — two cities living on top of each other and ignoring each other — but the setting is very interesting.
  • Any police procedural television series can provide a great inspiration for plot, or for characters. Things like Rebus and Luther are gritty enough to provide more than the obvious whodunnit-style of plot writing.
  • Cadfael (1994-1998). A monk solving crimes. What’s not to like?
  • R. J. Barker’s Assassin books. Barker uses Assassins in his books as a kind of police and investigator force. That could be a perfect inspiration for a character or some of the detail of the new setting you are working on.