Sunday, October 18, 2020

Rules for Citycrawling


Let me tell you about a game my father played with me as a child. It started when we were walking home from grade school in winter, through the Greenwich Village towards the East Village where I lived with my mother in a six floor walk-up opposite Saint Mark's Church. He would pull a hat over my eyes to blindfold me. He would take a couple of quick turns and walk me around until I was "lost" (disoriented), and then he would put me in front of something, and lift the hat, shielding with his hands the rest of my view, so that I could only see what was right before my eyes. 

Although we had never walked very far, and I had been over every street dozens of times, I had never seen (noticed) any of the things he showed me. A marble bust of a polish general. A colonial looking house with huge roman columns. Once he took me inside a store and when he lifted the hat there was an airplane in there. It was a rule that he would never tell me where we had been afterwards. Cut off entirely from the map of the streets as I knew them, these glimpses gave me the sense that i was seeing an entirely different city, a hidden city, like a palimpsest lying beneath the city I knew and peeking out here and there when the hat came up. What could I do build in my mind but spin out a whole alternate city built from these glimpses of things that were in truth hidden in plain sight? This alter-New York loomed large in my imagination.


Eventually the game had to stop when my direction sense got good enough that he couldn't get me "lost" even if he spun me like a top and took many quick turns. But when I got older I played the game by myself, getting myself lost in less familiar terrain to great profit. I found too that I could lift the hat, so to speak, on myself by just looking at what was right in front of my nose, and by searching out the weird tucked-away spots, the hidden worlds, the queer and inviting side-paths of urban life. And what I found was that that other city was never far, because cities are limitless storehouses of secrets, bursting with wonders if only one stops to look. 


The Model of Dungeon Crawl


I've been thinking for a long time about how to run and design cities in a retro-game sandbox way. I've been reading older rpg city material off and on for yearsI've also been running occasional games of the City State of the Invincible Overlord for my kids and their cousins. And now, at long last, one of my two groups has finally made it up to Zyan Above for some proper adventuring. So I thought it was time to pull together something in the way of technique. 

As I talked about here, the City State of the Invincible Overlord provides one model for running a fantasy city. It takes what I would call a "street-based" approach. In CSIO, streets generally have their own name, and many have their own special encounters. You also move through the city streets like corridors in a dungeon with encounters on a turn-based system. And there's a gorgeous map. It has the same openness that location-based adventuring has, but much more, since the "dungeon" of the city is less deadly and much more open. Because it's so focused on streets, there aren't neighborhoods with write-ups, because the focus is more fine-grained. This is similar to the way that dungeons often only loosely have thematically different quadrants.  

One thing I like about this approach is that it takes a tried and true open-gaming model and tries to reimagine and repurpose it for citycrawling. It also works for discovery and exploration. Just like I explore the map of the dungeon, moving through corridors, opening room by room, so too I explore the map of the city. For example, like other Judge's Guild products, the CSIO came with both player and DM maps, so that the players could fill them in, jotting down notes on the temples, guilds, establishments, and so on they discover. 


Although untapped, by extension from the dungeon, this also suggests a possible model for uncovering hidden locations in cities, insofar as procedures exist for uncovering secret doors and hidden areas in dungeon exploration. Perhaps one could try something similar here extending the dungeon model further. 

But the problem with this approach, for what I want, is that there's no way I could build a city that feels sufficiently big to scratch my metropolis of the dreamlands itch if I insisted on treating it in this exhaustive way. The entire CSIO map, for example, would only be the size of part of a single neighborhood in the city I've been imagining. 

A second problem is that I don't yet have a city map, and I'm not up to drawing one myself. This technique depends almost entirely on having a beautiful and interesting map. 

A third problem is that a map-focused approach doesn't have rules for getting lost. The simplest most fun version of using this technique would probably involve giving the players their own map of the city so that we didn't get bogged down in narrating details of the map. But in that case, the players would always know where they were.

A fourth problem is that by taking the street as the level of analysis, it loses something of the texture of a city. I want an approach that emphasizes the different feel of  different neighborhoods. I want a city with neighborhoods that feel as different as the East Village feels from Washington Heights or Red Hook or Astoria, or, to take a different city, as a different as Friendship feels from Polish Hill or Mount Lebanon. (Of course, one could recapture this through a well-designed map, but one could also try a different approach that built in the neighborhood as a unit more directly.) 


The Model of Procedural Generation



From early on, a different model competed with the completist dungeon-crawl model of the CSIO. This model involved procedural generation, either on the fly or in preparation for the game. There probably are precursors to this, but there are two relatively early products I know of that apply procedural generation techniques familiar from dungeon construction to cities. If you know more in the comments, then please let me know. 

The first is Midkemia system, first presented (I think) in the second edition of Cities, which involves a rich technique for randomly "stocking" a street with various shops and residences by rolling dice, with some neat rules for businesses clustering on a given street. Here we could see them applying the sorts of methods the Dungeon Master's Guide gave us for randomly generating dungeon rooms and stocking them via rolling on tables. 

The second came in Lankhmar: City of Adventure, which borrowed the procedural generation of dungeons using geomorphs: cut out dungeon chunks cleverly designed so that one can assemble them in any number of combinations by laying down connecting tiles. Lankhmar used a city geomorph to map the mazy slum of alleyways that connect buildings in a sort of city-within-a-city way in Lankhmar. The thought was that there was no way or point in mapping them, and that their jerry-rigged structures shift often as well, so better to capture the mazy, infinite, and shifting feel of it it with procedural generation. In a delicious coup, the gorgeous Lankhmar map left blank spots to indicate where one entered geomorph space, so that you would generate a chase through the streets after a cutpurse (say) in this fashion, and players could know in advance when they stepping into an area with this sort of procedure. 



Again, what I like about this is that it takes tried and true techniques from open-world dungeon crawling and design, and repurposes them to work on the city environment. 

The early OSR fastened on techniques like these to deal with city crawling, focusing on procedural methods of generating city environments, although without much awareness of the early hobby precursors. Vornheim was intended to capture an infinite city, of which its author, the abuser Zak Smith, grudgingly drew a map of on the inside cover, while telling the reader not to use it. Instead, streets were to be procedurally generated using a (too) cute system that involved writing words, with a separate die drop system for generating buildings and streets. This was supplemented by copious random tables did the rest of the work, along with illustrative examples of buildings and the like. [New copies of this book are not for sale any more, so discussing it will not produce profits for its author.]

The reason why this procedural generation approach won't work for me, as flexible and wonderful as these techniques can be, is that if you procedurally generate locations on the fly, you systematically disable the pleasure of uncovering something hidden, since it's all made up as you go along. As a player (not a character), I can only find something if it's already there to be found. Furthermore, if the map is infinite and generated on the fly, then although it sure will feel big, there also will be no such thing as coming to know it. And my love of cities is all about coming to know them, and this is what I want to capture in my city crawling rules. 


The Model of the Pointcrawl


Another model we could try in this context is the pointcrawl. The term "pointcrawl" was coined by Chris Kutalik for techniques that use points of interest connected to one another by abstract paths one moves along. The pointcrawl abstracts movement through a much larger space where not everything is of equal interest, and so where a micro-focus on the environment is not fun. It also mirrors the way one orients oneself in a wilderness space, navigating by landmarks, trails, paths of least resistance, and the like. 

This is promising since it would allow exploration while focusing prep energy as a DM on a set number of notable locations, with possibly multiple things there, e.g. a location could be a single notable bathhouse, or it could be a theater row, or a bustling square with numerous establishments. If we wanted to focus on different neighborhoods, we could make each it's own pointcrawl. A pointcrawl models in abstract ways the distance between things without presupposing that one has a gorgeous map sufficient to capture the fascination and interest of players. So that's a plus too.

There is an obstacle to this otherwise promising approach in the city context in that one can usually reach a location in a city without being forced to move through any given location by going a slightly roundabout way. Thus cities don't really have the chokepoint feature of pointcrawl maps. But one can handle this by simply giving players the option of not interacting with points they pass through. 

To make this work, we'll also need rules for getting lost on a pointcrawl, and a way to model off the beaten path or "hidden locations" in each neighborhood, which are often not literally hidden (although sometimes they are), but rather places that are easy to miss secret locations. Luckily, I have a system for this I developed for the sewer crawl in issue 3 of Through Ultan's Door, that uses a system of floating hidden nodes on the pointcrawl. I'll repurpose that here.


My Citycrawling System (V.1)



City Size

The number of neighborhoods, and locations in a given neighborhood, depends on the size of the city. There are the same number of hidden locations per neighborhood as regular locations, and the number must correspond to a die size (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, etc. unless you use funny DCC dice). The hidden locations are ordered in a numbered list in terms of how hard they are to find, the higher the number, the harder it is to stumble on them. 

  • Small City: 3-5 neighborhoods; 4 nodes and hidden location per neighborhood 
  • Middling City: 4-6 neighborhoods; 6 nodes and hidden location per neighborhood 
  • Large City: 5-7 neighborhoods; 8 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood
  • Metropolis (the size of Zyan): 6-8 neighborhoods: 10 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood
  • Megalopolis: 7-10 neighborhoods: 12 nodes and hidden locations per neighborhood

At the bottom end you have a city with three neighborhoods, 12 notable and 12 hidden locations. At the top end you have a city with a staggering 10 neighborhoods with 120 notable and 120 hidden locations. Zyan is on the big side, with 6 neighborhoods, and so 60 notable locations and 60 hidden locations. While prepping a giant city like this is a lot of work, the idea is that it could sustain years of possible play, a whole campaign in a single city. (And should players just visit, I want them to be like: HOLY HELL that's a proper city of the dreamlands.) This number feels right to me.

Encounters

When entering a neighborhood roll an encounter check. Also roll an encounter check when moving from any node to another other node. Encounters in cities are somewhat less perilous (although they can be dangerous), less to give pressure to exploration, and more to provide color, introduce NPCs, and provide hooks for adventure. Encounter checks occur 2 in 6. 

Searching for Secret Locations


The party can at any time lift the metaphorical hat from their eyes as they move between nodes in the pointcrawl by wandering down less known byways to their destination or by taking the time to pay special attention to what is in front of their noses. When they do so, they incur an additional encounter check and can roll to see if they have discovered a hidden location with a 1 in 6 chance. 

If they discover a hidden location, roll the die of the size corresponding to the number of hidden locations in the neighborhoods. Cross off hidden locations from the list as players discover them. If you re-roll an already discovered location, take the lowest (easiest to find) remaining undiscovered location on the list. Write the location down in its present location as a new node on your pointcrawl.

What stops players from gaming the system by just searching limitlessly for secret locations? Nothing; if they want to have a session that's full of city encounters and stumbling upon less known locations that sounds like a fun session to me! A hidden location is not like a secret room full of treasure. It's more like a hook for adventuring and exploration. If players want to uncover more of those, God bless.  

Getting Lost

When entering a neighborhood, or moving between locations in it, check to see if the party becomes lost. Roll a die corresponding to the number of locations in the neighborhood (4=1d4, 6=1d6, etc.). The chance of becoming lost is initially very high, n-1/n (so 3 in 4, 5 in 6, 7 in 8, etc.). Decrease that chance by 1 for each location the party has visited in the neighborhood. When the number is 0, the party knows their way around well enough that they can no longer become lost in that neighborhood. (This necessitates a minimal book-keeping for each neighborhood, with a score equal to the number of locations the party has visited in that neighborhood.) 

If the party is lost, that's not necessarily a bad thing. First give them a free roll to see if they stumble upon a secret location, since getting lost is the best way to find something off the beaten path. Next roll an encounter check. Finally, if they don't find a hidden location, dice randomly to see at what (non-hidden) location the party arrives, the spot where they can ask for directions and get their bearing. 

Hiring Transportation or a Guide


I discussed methods of transit in Zyan here. Generally speaking, what these means of transport do is allow one to travel to any known (non-hidden) location in the city without undergoing encounter checks to get there. Probably what I'll do is substitute a single 2 in 6 chance of an incident occurring en route, with a different table for each method of transport (Ferry, Palanquin, Carriage, or Nimbus Barque). You can also give them directions to hidden locations that you know.

One can also hire a guide. To find a guide, roll 2d6 modified by +1 in a bustling location, and -1 in a quiet location. On a 7+ you find a guide who knows the neighborhood you want to visit for a fee. You roll on the table of guides to see who you turned up. (As I envision it, the table of guides will have modifiers for how fancy the neighborhood is, and some of the guides will be dubious characters, naturally.) 

The guide will know all the known locations in a neighborhood, and can take the players to any of them, or on a walking tour of the neighborhood that will reveal the entire pointcrawl map. While traveling with the guide your party will not become lost. Some of the guides on the chart will also have a percentage chance to know a hidden location. 

That's all for now. In my next post I'll likely talk about some city exploration based downtime actions. 


22 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, both for gaming and childhood. Thanks.

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  2. Very timely post. I'm building a tentpole city for my campaign currently and your wrinkle on the point crawl with hidden locations is great.

    I'm running Into the Unknown with classes and backgrounds tailor made for the setting. I think the city watch and rat catcher backgrounds will have bonuses/advantage on the discovery/navigation checks.

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    1. I love the idea of some backgrounds have advantages in urban environments. Very cool.

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  3. Fuck yes Ben. Once again you cut a great compromise between new wave oversimplification and the Gygaxian realism/madness of AD&D, useful for the DM on the run.

    It would be an insane amount of work (13 neighbourhoods times 24 locations each is over 300, might have to scale that back), but this system seems worth a try for my modded CSWE game at home. At least I have the books as a starting point!

    Here are some other city books you might get *some* use out of, which I have been digging through for the aforesaid game, trying in vain to find a city system as easy to use as what you just described:

    -Thieves' World - https://www.nobleknight.com/Products/Thieves-World-Chaosium
    -The Free city of Haven - http://www.diffworlds.com/haven.htm
    -You already know about Melan's awesome Nocturnal Table - https://emdt.bigcartel.com/product/the-nocturnal-table
    -It is based on an out of print PDF called City Encounters by Matt Finch, nobody seems to have it but it sounds awesome. If anyone has a line on that...
    -Courtney's On Downtime & Demesnes (somewhat less useful for you as it covers a lot of the same ground) - https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/297829/On-Downtime-and-Demesnes-Basic-DD
    - Some of the Savage Worlds Lankhmar stuff is good too. Although likely not setting-appropriate for you, others may like the short swords & sorcery adventures.
    - Finally, not a game system and maybe you've read much further than this, but Ancient Town Planning by F. Haverfield has some great examples of old cities, maps & pictures and everything - http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14189/14189-h/14189-h.htm

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    1. Thanks Dylan, I know Thieves World and love it, but haven't checked out Haven or Ancient Town Planning.

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  4. Thanks, Ben. I really appreciate the story about your father and your approachable ideas on City crawling. The point crawl really does seem to work well as a default mode for city play, but I think you could combine it with street-based navigation in certain situations. Most of the time, the path you take doesn't matter, but during riots, revolutions, fires and chases, etc. you may want the party to pick their path.

    In this case it would work well if neighborhoods were relatively self-contained with obvious connections between nodes (bridges, causeways & thoroughfares). You could then discover pathways between the boroughs as some of your hidden locations. These could be shortcuts or just more secret. For locations where there is no obvious choke point, conceptually the nodes are the same in terms of navigation.

    I wouldn't suggest using navigation challenges unless there is time pressure and/or great danger, but to me knowing how to get around is such an iconic part of getting to know a place. (I'm thinking of the scene where you argue with the taxi driver.)

    Happy crawling.

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    1. I agree that it would be fun to model shortcuts. Maybe some of the hidden things to be discovered would include shortcuts that would save you time, encounter checks, and so on.

      I also agree that street level play is fun/necessary for the kinds of things you're talking about. Here I think die drop methods, geomorphs, or stocking tables, sorted by neighborhood would be the way to go, at least when improvising on the fly. It would be really sweet to have different street geomorphs for each neighborhood!

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  5. Last Gasp uses drop die generation but for the Boroughs, and the city boroughs themselves come and go from the relevance/existence. (https://www.lastgaspgrimoire.com/in-corpathium/)

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    1. Kyana, thanks for reminding me of that, I had forgotten. I want to write a post each about the three blog-only great cities of the retro-gaming scene: (1) Wermspittle, (2) Cörpathium, and (3) the Wicked City.

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    2. I agree it shouldn't be forgotten. I'm working on a review of Genial Jack, which is a pre-taste. But I think we'll have hex in published form before too too long.

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  6. Great post, Ben, as always!

    About that OOP City Encounters pdf...drop me an email at tacojohndm at yahoo.com. We carried that when we published Swords & Wizardry, circa 2009-2010, and we still sell it from time to time. (The proceeds all go to Matt since it’s his work.)

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  7. Great post, Ben, as always!

    About that OOP City Encounters pdf...drop me an email at tacojohndm at yahoo.com. We carried that when we published Swords & Wizardry, circa 2009-2010, and we still sell it from time to time. (The proceeds all go to Matt since it’s his work.)

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    1. Will do! Thank Jon. I have a PDF but I'd love to snag a hard copy.

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  8. Sorry for the confusion in my double-post...we don’t have print copies of Matt’s City Encounters, only the old pdf.

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  9. Your childhood anecdote is beautiful, and makes me think of my own wonder of going out at night in the City, and experience that never quite left me - wandering home debauched from a familiar bar, down a different street then the usual can still be an adventure and phantasmagoria.

    As to urban adventures I like your system - it seems solidly workable, and that's a compliment. My own impulse is to make the city alien to the dungeon and the wilderness and focus narrowly on two aspects of urban life, especially pre-modern urban life: money and time. I can't say Ive figured out a system here, I've tried and gotten distracted, but to me the fantasy city is a place where strangers like the PCs have their treasure siphoned away, where finding the right thing and finding work are the dangers, not random encounters, (I like the secrets thing - its in this vein). I'd impose ruinous costs by day to hunt rumors, survive, shop and make friends. danger only presents itself when the PC runs out of cash or refuses to pay and then the urban predators take notice. The struggle is to keep one's clothes nice, pay the bribes and find dubious adventure jobs/secret contacts before the urban tide pulls you under or you have to go back into the wilds.

    By time I don't mean its simple passage, but its regimentation - each week a fantasy city should have inexplicable going-ons, fluctuations in prices, public events, parades, inquisitions, press gangs etc. A randomized calendar that interacts with and confuses the PC's steady progression to pauperism, disrupting plans.

    A city supplement would thus include:
    Description and map
    Weekly/Daily costs
    Event generator
    By Neighborhood rumor, secret, personality and job generators
    1-2 secret dungeons
    Dangerous random encounters for when you run out of money (mostly cops that keep you penned up in the bad neighborhood where there's no jobs/rumors)

    Anyway I'm excited by this post.

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    1. Gus I really look forward to seeing what you come up with here. I like a lot the idea of differentiating the kinds of resource management as the cost and grinds of living that drive players to adventure. I think it's a different model in that your system is about living in a city, whereas mine is more about visiting a city for short stays, i.e. dipping in for active adventuring for several sessions, and then leaving, and coming back later again, and so on.

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  10. Somewhere I read a blogpost about a very similar system using a hexcrawls. Neighborhoods were represented as hexes, every neighborhood has one (or more) landmark locations, that are well enough known (or easy enough to find) that even strangers will find them when entering a neighborhood. The neighborhoods also have hidden locations, that must be found by searching in the hex. You can always travel to known locations in the same, or in neighboring hexes.
    This also evades the problem of locations being chokepoints.

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    1. That sounds fascinating and closely related to what I'm trying to do. If you stumble on the reference, drop it here for sure, I'd be interested in taking a look.

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    2. If I may piggyback on that observation, the way Hot Springs Island sets up its wilderness hexcrawl, with each hex having 3 hidden features that each require a certain time-commitment to find, could be another way at this (though personally I think I favor the pointcrawl approach. And the existence of chokepoints doesn't bother me! They may seem quite unrealistic in Manhattan, say, but when I lived in the Boston area for some years, chokepoints were a normal part of moving across the city).

      Thanks for the interesting post.

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    3. Hot Springs Island is an interesting take on hexcrawling for sure that has a family resemblance to this approach. The same could be said about UVG's "discoveries". They all share the idea that there should be hidden layers to travel and exploration in a non-dungeon context. It's neat to think about them as each trying to do something similar in a different context. Thanks!

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  11. I grew up spending summers in medieval German town and those feelings of experiencing something wholly different, older, and more mysterious than middle America relates to these notions of exploring. Hidden corners of antiquity, barred off tower windows, ancient stone sites.
    Newer member to rpgs, but to learn I have been reading and trying to write game material. This post is rather timely, in that I have spent the past week working on a pointcrawl/ node-based table generation zinefor a city setting.

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