Let's talk about the most dangerous place for a group of PC's to go in any campaign world. I don't care if your campaign is set on the edge of the precipice of Hell, and your 1st level PC's are trying to raid Demogorgon's abyssal, underwater nightmare palace – this is more dangerous. I'm referring, of course, to the City. Any city.
Any town, even, for that matter. There is no environment more perilous to the sanity of the DM, the integrity of the party, and even the very nature of the campaign world than the cityscape. Of course, it's also impossible to run a game without the PC's winding up in one at some point. So how does a DM keep his campaign intact when the players pass through those city gates?
Before we can answer that, we need to look at just why cities are so perilous in the first place. Players are never more likely to split up, assault important NPCs or just generally act unpredictable as they are in a city. The reason for this is simple: Cities combine the most uncontrollable aspects of D&D in one place.
Just look at this mess:
- Cities are all but designed to split the party. Players naturally know what to expect to find in large cities (e.g. shops, bars, fancy homes, whores etc), and unless you DM a group of pod people, 9 times out of 10 you'll end up with at least one player who wants to do something different from the rest of the group (e.g. shop, get drunk, steal stuff, go whoring), and suddenly you find yourself Dming several groups at once.
- A city is the ultimate open world environment. Even if the PC's don't split up, they're still likely to wander off into places your notes don't cover.
- Cities are hard to balance for level. From 1st level peasants to 25th level archmages, a city not only can, but often must have it all. PC's who go off the rails are just as likely to end up killing everyone in the whole city block as they are getting themselves into hot water with no way out.
- Big cities hold important NPC's (kings, nobles etc). PC's naturally like to have an effect on the campaign world , and nothing has an effect like trying to off a noble. Nothing tempts a PC to evil deeds like the realization that they could change the whole game by killing one old geezer.
So how do you deal with a gaggle of loot laden, power-leveled PC's when they tromp into Anytown, Fantasyland without railroading them in and out? What do you do when one PC is in a bar fight, one is looting a noble villa, and another is trying to sneak into the princess' bed chamber?
Well, first off – do not railroad them! I'll get into this more in later articles, but avoid railroading at all costs. By all means, encourage your PC's to follow the narrative thread by every tool at your disposal, but realize that each time you say “no” you're making your player's feel powerless. Nothing pushes players away quicker. You tend to get yourself in much more trouble as a DM saying “no” than saying “yes.”
So how do you deal with a split up group that's gone totally off the rails?
The best offense in this case, is a little fore thought. Here's what works for me – all lessons learned via the school of hard knocks.
- Lose the city map and go abstract. If you have a detailed city map by all means incorporate it for the sake of flavor, but don't bog yourself down in the details of which block who is on when. Tracking the square for square movements of each player is tortuously slow, even if the group is all together. Instead, keep relative track of the PC's by using a symbolic map. Represent the city as wards, and draw the wards out or simply represent them by marking different areas of the table with whatever is at hand. You should decide on the number of wards ahead of time, for example a tavern ward, a temple ward, a noble ward, and a merchant ward. Place the PC's in the appropriate wards, and use rules of thumb to arbitrate how long it takes to travel between them.
- Keep the PC's in initiative order. If the PCs split up, have everyone roll initiative and resolve actions in that order. This ensures that everyone has equal playing time. Actual combat rounds may not make sense in a city scenario, so consider using arbitrary, short lengths of time – a “game minute” for instance. Being exact is less important than giving everyone a chance to make a meaningful action that keeps the action going.
- Use the PC's explorations to further the plot. This is elementary but it's worth rehashing. Ask yourself, what is your goal for the PC's in the city. A quest from the King? To battle corruption in the church? To discover that the Princess was replaced by a psychopathic doppelganger? Whatever the case, it's your task to advance the action so the PC's can encounter the end goal. If you anticipate your PC's splitting up in the city, prepare a handful of meaningful encounters before hand that you can seed into the different districts. These can be anything – from overhearing a rumor to getting caught up in a case of mistaken identity – the key is to use each encounter to somehow advance the overall narrative as the PC's roam and have their fun.
- Tie the threads back together. This is easier said than done. Once you've sown your narrative seeds, the time will arrive to get the player's on with it. Best is if the PC's have a place they need to be by a particular time, but if you have neglected to set up such a convenient narrative mechanism there are still a few tricks you can pull. The most effective is to simply trigger some city wide event that flushes the PC's out of their various districts and sends them back together – a royal procession can do this, as can a monster attack or, if all else fails, a citywide fire that flushes them out the same gate. A final expedient can be a simple out of game reminder that you can't get on with the adventure until everyone is back together, though I try to avoid this as much as possible as a breach of DM etiquette.
A final note on using the city guard. A common tactic used by many DMs is to send the guard in after misbehaving PC's. There are a couple problems that arise from this. First, level differences. If the PC's are medium to high level it's generally a stretch of reality to have town guards who would be able to take them out in a fight. Second, if even a single PC makes it away without being arrested, you've just tied your own hands. Unless it has been very carefully planned, nothing kills a session's momentum like locking up only part of the players.
It's more effective to give chase and either provide the PC's a clean escape, or have the guards back down and offer a second chance.
If a PC has done something particularly heinous in town and you want him to feel the repercussions, subjecting him to the in game legal process is not the way to do it. Instead think about how that action could have a negative effect on the PC's goals or aspirations, then use that to heighten the stakes at a later date. As long as you haven't forgotten about the crime, the PC isn't off the hook. Whats more, they've just given you a great hook to use as an adventure tool and a legitimate excuse to spring a nasty trap on them at a later date – plus you've managed to keep the motion of the story going forcing anyone to spend their spare time pretending their sitting in a prison cell.