Home > Uncategorized > A city is not a dungeon

A city is not a dungeon

Whenever I open a new RPG book, I hope for two things:
first, to be surprised by a new world I can get my imagination fired up about – some atmosphere or proposition that makes me want to play it;
second, some solid ways to get my players equally engaged with it, so that I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting of getting them to see what I see when reading it – ways to put them in the right kind of mindset to enjoy whatever it is that makes this particular book special.

A lot of city supplements are pretty good at the first task – they describe what’s distinctive about their particular city, treating it more or less like a zoomed-out dungeon construction kit, with neighbourhoods and factions and a map, and often an introductory adventure in the back.
Very few are good at the second. In most of them, the elements of the city are laid out clearly enough, but there aren’t a lot of handles for the players to grab hold of.

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Recently I’ve been playing Fallen London and admiring how good it is at both of these tasks. First, it’s totally focused on the player’s actions, using their decisions to gradually open up ever-more-complex vistas onto a genuinely deep, intriguing world. Second, it really understands the particular affordances and opportunities that cities offer, which are different from those of the dungeon, the wilderness, or the sea.
Big deal, you say – it’s an interactive game, of course it handles the game aspects well. OK, but it also reminds me strongly of GURPS Goblins, my favourite city supplement of all time, which manages to take the same approach in book format.

Fallen London is a lot of fun, and free, and doesn’t require any special downloads, so I recommend you go play it, if you haven’t. GURPS Goblins is out of print but not hard to find. Don’t worry about it being GURPS – the rules bits are easy to convert and anyway, the setting and presentation are the important bits. The fantasy Dickensian Londons that both products present are slightly off the standard fantasy genre paths – the latter more Pratchett-influenced and deliberately comic. I like that about them, I think it’s part of their strength, but if you want vanilla fantasy, they still have a lot to teach you.

What they get right is that they concentrate on what the player is going to do, right now, to interact with the city’s parts. At every moment they offer the player hooks to snag their desires, opportunities to get into trouble, and longer-term goals and obstacles, so that the players generate their own adventures.
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Both of them present the city as a set of hierarchies, for the players to level up through. You start in the gutter, stealing bread. Once you’ve solved the problem of starving, you start climbing a social ladder that takes in servanthood, guilds, highway robbery and positions of responsibility until at last you mingle with (and lift jewels off) high society. And here’s one of the clever bits: along the way your horizons and webs of interactions keep expanding – both games recognize that you’re going to start as a lonely murderhobo with selfish interests, looking for what you can extract and consume. But then both show you how building partnerships and networks, giving back, and exploiting the history of your prior interactions will give you power and importance, while opening up new goals and opportunities. So you start with little heists – stealing sausages from the butcher’s shop, breaking backstairs windows to swipe mops and buckets to start a chimney-cleaning business – and progress to… bigger heists, sure, but you also meet other chimney sweeps and find out that they all case rich houses for a gangster, which presents you with a choice – join and progress in the gangster’s court, or alert some potential society patron that they’re about to be robbed and rely on their gratitude.

Fallen London handles the progression through logic gates, of course. In Goblins, there’s a chapter-by-chapter structure that progresses up the hierarchy – it tells the player how best to dispose of the treasures they’ve picked up in order to unlock more complex adventures, and it gives the DM advice on how to distinguish the different levels of society. One of its smartest, clearest expressions of progress is the discussion of the PC’s lodgings – a character’s social ambitions demand a certain number of rooms, from the first flophouse dormitory to a lockable bedroom, where they can safeguard their stuff, to a suite of reception rooms and even bathing facilities, so they can entertain and rub shoulders with the quality. And income, status and expenses all go hand-in-hand, so the aspiring courtier plotting to win a baronetcy has to get out there and hustle to maintain their position, no less than the grubby urchin beggar.

So this leads me to my second point, about why (counter the assertions in Vornheim) a city is usefully not a dungeon. First, it is simultaneously the arena of play and the player characters’ home base – an ambivalent status that’s reflected in all its institutions, which protect its loyal and influential denizens while threatening its outcasts and miscreants. In the dungeon, guards are always bad news. In the city, the successful criminal avoids them or pays them off, the successful courtier uses them to help guard their secrets or harass rivals. Second, as a social environment with repeated interactions, it demands social play – fealty and tribute, gift-giving, debts and clubs and favours – which is to say it builds history for the PC, so that each new challenge becomes an opportunity to deepen and broaden their network of contacts. Third, as a socially mobile environment, it demands display. The dungeoneer can skulk unregarded in their name-level Keep on the Borderlands, nipping out occasionally to raid yet another Lich’s carefully-hidden trap-park, and store up the resultant cursed gold and invisibility neckerchiefs in their attic, but the influential townie needs to be seen maintaining their position, occupying boxes at the opera, commissioning swagger portraits, renting bears for their retainers to bait, and flirting with their betters. And, apart from En Garde!, hardly anyone has ever seriously developed a game that reflects both the advantages of preferment this sort of display can bring, and the costs of failing to keep it up.

Of course, I’m not talking about just any city, here. Maybe you can skulk in your McMansion of solitude in Cincinatti, but then you’re not really engaging in the interesting chronotope of the city-of-adventure, outlined above. For that you want some analogue of industrial revolution London or Paris (depending on whether you’re an ambitious huckster or a struggling Bohemian artist) or, if you want to get right down to the soul of the thing, late Renaissance Venice.
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To the extent the city is not a dungeon, it demands different characters and skills (I’m tempted to say the single most important way games distinguish themselves is in the kinds of characters they get you to play). D&D, focused on robbing dungeons, demands robber types that fit like keys into the dungeon’s locks. Monsters afford fighting, traps afford thieving, ancient mysteries afford magic. So D&D draws on Howard’s Conan and Lieber’s Grey Mouser and Vance’s Mazirian to structure both the kinds of characters the players will play and the kinds of challenges the DM will pit against them. Fallen London and Goblins are if anything even more focused: they get you to develop PCs who are themselves interesting guides to the nature of the city and its affordances. But they draw from a different tradition of fiction, in which mountebanks and chancers take advantage of the uncertain social situations for which the early modern city was famous. Fallen London offers a wry joke about this, when you pursue a mysterious arsonist, who turns out to be just like you:

You hear of them! A series of robberies. Acquaintances in high society. Wins at the ring fights. Entanglements with surface folk. Even forays into the arts of detection. Just who is this person?

Who? I’d argue that it’s the great granddaddy of urban, socially mobile mountebanks: Giacomo Casanova.

Casanova was, by his own description, a complex and difficult character – a womanizer and seducer,* a duelist, a rake, a spy, a sometime burglar, an alchemist, a charlatan, and a quack doctor. He was exiled from his native Venice three times, and yet managed to ingratiate his way into society in every capital in Europe. In D&D terms he’d be something like a thief or a bard, but neither of those classes capture his breadth. He’s just not a D&D character. He’s also one of the prototypes for a whole tradition of urban literature, taking in rakes and Romantic poets and Zola’s demimondaines and gentleman thieves like Raffles and the Pink Panther. Fallen London models him (i.e. you) with four attributes: Watchful (for spying), Shadowy (for sneaking and thieving), Persuasive (for seducing and charlatanry), and Dangerous (for dueling and the livelier kinds of raking). Note that it does not bother to model your gross physical attributes or your intelligence: it is concerned only with those reaction surfaces that grip the challenges of its world. And Fallen London, therefore, is filled with jilted duelists and enraged constables, balconies and knotted bedsheets, spies and assassins, poorly-guarded prisons and lurid scandals, for you to fall foul of, deny, evade, and just maybe control.

To get you into this “monstrous variety” (it’s also a shameless pastiche, of course, and wears its Borges and Gogol serial numbers with pride) it needs to involve you with all the city’s competing interest groups and agendas. And that’s another way the city is unlike the dungeon.

A city is at base a collection of factions, all in symbiotic relationships with each other. It’s a big ball of twine, and if you pull on a strand, an unknown and expanding number of other strands get tugged as well. It’s a social minefield, and you need experienced guides to get you through parts of it.

You may protest that this is also true of many dungeons, but here’s the critical difference: the dungeon is fundamentally an adversarial genre of interaction. The players step into it as outsiders and they seek to loot it for what they can, and then retire to somewhere safer. Vornheim assumes you go to the countess’s ball in order to disrupt it, steal from it, poison the countess – because you’ll never really be a native among its grotesque aristos. But Fallen London ties those society figures to every other corner of its web, by having you constantly leapfrog in your progress from gutter to rooftop to gallery to lawyer’s office. So it shows you how every major figure has contacts among the criminals and dock-workers, as well as the musicians and police, and it slowly makes you, too, into a native among them. The city expands to let the players in, not as invaders but participants. It has uses for them in every corner, and it turns them into supporters of one faction or another through repeated choices.

All this works because many of the factions are actively recruiting, so the player should be able to get into several of them fairly easily. Those that aren’t – the closed-off, exclusive or shunned places – are terrified of missing out, so the more experienced, street-wise player should be able to worm their way in with some privileged information and a well-connected ally.

So, in summary, if you want to run a city campaign, my recommendations are:
1. start small and low down the social scale, with short-term activities that lead to longer-term goals, familiar to murderhobos. Then, through every one of these early adventures, introduce helper characters, who the players have to remember, who can owe them favours over time, who can be asked questions and offer hooks in future escapades.
2. make the routes to advancement obvious, but strewn with perils. Make it clear early on that you may be able to steal those diamonds but if you do, you’ll never be able to use them to get close to the Countess, which is in the end far more valuable.
3. encourage adventures that are outside the usual heists and menace-hunting expeditions – making contacts, impressing guilds, learning and exploiting personal information, romantic entanglements, no matter how mercenary they may be at their root. The players’ histories will come to represent the city for them – and will give them resources to draw on, which is to say, something to lose.
4. never introduce a faction without first thinking about how the players can use it, why they should want to get involved, and why they might care. Corollary:
5. make it clear that helping others will help the players eventually. Maybe there are resources, secrets, mysteries that the players will hear rumours of but can’t get hold of unless they can influence some certain set of people. Now they have to actually get involved in the lives of intermediaries, in order to realize their goals.
6. eventually, by all means, make it dizzying and complex. Make the players long for a map and a notebook and reminders of the hundred schemes they’ve opened up. But not all at once: introduce no more than two more elements, goals or factions per session. That’s how you get reel them in.
7. keep the barriers to entry low, but the paths to advancement twisty and arduous. Always offer ways to make lateral progress – it may be next to impossible to get into the Ninja Guild, but it’s easy to join some band of street ruffians that have members who’ve had dealings with the Ninja before, or who, it is rumoured, the Ninjas watch closely for promising newcomers.
8. and never tell them they can’t do something because of what class they are. The city is the place you can reinvent yourself, constantly, and where you can always find specialist help, provided you don’t mind forming a partnership.

* it turns out that the original author of Fallen London, like that of Vornheim, has been accused of sexual misconduct and some kind of abuse. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, I have no special reason to doubt the accusers. Allegedly he’s not involved with the game any more. Given that you play pseudo-Casanova in the game and historical Casanova was a thoroughly reprehensible abuser and child-molester, and you have the opportunity in the game to fantasize about seducing various fictional characters, that may be a kind of complicated fun that isn’t for everyone. Or maybe the fact that your character isn’t called Casanova or that Casanova lived more than 200 years ago makes it all OK, Personally, I just think the game is a fine piece of work and have no opinion about the rest.

  1. simlasa
    March 6, 2020 at 12:26 am

    Epic post!
    I LOVE Fallen London and have been seeking out ideas to hammer it into TTRPG form, not so much the specifics as the atmosphere of having layers of social webs nesting across and through each other.

    • March 7, 2020 at 3:43 am

      Thanks! I strongly recommend Goblins for its advice on how to do this – quite a few authors recommend mapping out a social web so you can anticipate how the players’ actions will affect other groups, but few really talk about how this should affect player behaviour. I’m really looking forward to Paolo Greco’s Gangs and Bullshit, and Jack Shear wrote about “powder keg” settings the other day, primed to go off at the slightest nudge.
      http://talesofthegrotesqueanddungeonesque.blogspot.com/2019/10/making-powder-keg-dune-way.html

      I’ve got a supplement in progress at the moment that deals with Mongol and Persian court intrigues, which is essentially a social web generator, but I can’t say when that will be out – it’s in the publisher’s slush pile…

      If you have a blog of your own, post it here – I’m always looking for more people to read (and I have a terrible memory for what names everyone was using last year).

  2. doublejig2
    March 6, 2020 at 1:41 am

    Good article. City as dungeon may work fine conceptually until the party visits an actual dungeon up close and personal, finding it noisome, fetid, and terrifying. A city may have all of these characteristics, too, but their sheer compression, entropy, and murderous danger is the hallmark of the dungeon. As well, factions lovingly introduced as you advise also indicate the city more so in scope and scale than the dungeon. As does the question, where can I get an ale?

  3. doublejig2
    March 6, 2020 at 11:03 pm

    Also, I forgot to mention your 7 steps for city adventures, which verily rule – very cool.

    • March 7, 2020 at 3:50 am

      Thanks. This already wound up longer than I intended, but I have a lot more to say…..

      If you have a blog of your own, post it here – I’m always looking for more people to read (and I have a terrible memory for what names everyone was using last year).

  4. Skerples
    March 8, 2020 at 11:00 pm

    I’d be interested to see your take on Magical Industrial Revolution / Endon. I encountered a lot of the same problems while preparing the city, and I think (or at least I hope) I solved a few of them. David has some notes here: https://technicalgrimoire.com/david/2019/12/MagicalIndustrialToolbox

    • March 10, 2020 at 5:41 pm

      I’ve had my head down for a while and haven’t got around to reading MIR yet… but I will!

      It looks like a really nicely conceptualized package – the apocalypse-box is a genre that’s done occasionally really well in anime, but hardly ever attempted in US media (arguably every Marvel movie is one but the conventions of superhero fiction stop it from ever getting interesting/the threat from ever becoming credible).

  5. March 10, 2020 at 4:12 am

    It’s funny, when I started playing Fallen London back in grad school, I thought it seemed both similar to D&D, but also different in key ways that I didn’t give a lot of thought to deconstructing. This was before I even had my blog. I really like the way you’ve written it up.

    The four abilities in Fallen London aren’t really like D&D’s ability scores. They’re more like skills, or class levels (with everyone multi-classing in all four). It would be interesting to take an even closer look at how they knit the four adventure-types together as you jump from one to another. Anyway, which is to say that I like this post, and I hope you’ll keep writing about cities.

    Re: seduction, a new history book by Clement Knox claims that part of our collective ambivalence toward seduction is not knowing if this or that seducer is merely very affable and attractive, or if they’ve used some sort of coercion, and our inability to agree on both individual cases and the concept as a whole. In a game, at least, I think you could have seduction that’s unambiguously enthusiastically consensual, every time.

    • March 10, 2020 at 5:45 pm

      The approach FL takes, where you can effectively play as just one class for a long time, doing one set of activities, is extremely interesting to me. It produces characters who can be world-leading in one area of expertise and useless/naive in another… rather like life. That said, I never actually played the game that way – I’ve always kept my attributes more-or-less even.

      The game is structurally complex, as well as deep. I feel like I’ll have more to say about it again soon – I just made Person of Some Importance, which feels like an inflection point into… I’m not sure what but I’m sure it’s something else.
      The Ambitions appeal to me because that’s how I generally build my campaigns – centered on a gigantic, possibly-impossible goal, which you have to approach in a zig-zag fashion, so you incidentally reveal the world – so I think of myself as playing to further that. But there are many other ways to play – there’s a Pokemon-like advancement-and-collection game, there are hundreds of little stories building up to a cohesive body of lore, there are various kinds of bragging rights, which you can exploit together with other players…. so much content!

  6. March 23, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    I agree with you that much talk of “spotlights” in RPGs strike as annoyingly binary on this point. check out best ceiling lights types for kitchen https://www.ceilinglightspro.com/tips-to-get-your-kitchen-lighting-perfect-lightening-guide/

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