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Pack Tactics Advice: How do I get the characters across a big city?

Pack Tactics Advice: How do I get the characters across a big city?

It’s time again for the Kobold Press advice column, Pack Tactics!

Our roundtable experts this month are Ben Eastman, Basheer Ghouse, Phillip Larwood, Ben McFarland, Sebastian Rombach, Brian Suskind, and Mike Welham.

You might recognize some of these names from Kobold Press products such as the updated Tome of Beasts 1 and Campaign Builder: Cities and Towns. And as contributors to this very blog!

Whatever questions you have about running a game, handling tricky metagame traps, and ruling edge cases, they’ve got an answer. Sometimes several!

Anonymous GM asks . . .

How do you approach travel in large cities? Do you let players skip the travel time and distance? Do you follow a pointcrawl where you have to follow certain routes to get from Point A to Point D? (ex. You can’t go from Point A to Point D, but you can go A->B->D or A->C->D). Campaign Builder: Cities and Towns gave me a bunch of options for random encounters along the way. But I would’ve appreciated an approach to how to DM travelling in large cities.

Brian Suskind. For the games I run, it usually depends on circumstances and the mood of the game. Think of it like being in a car. Sometimes you are just coasting along. The pace of the game is slow, there is no real rush to get someplace, you can go into detail about the area of the city the PCs are traveling through, describing the people they see along the way, the shops, the mood of the area, etc.

Other times, the PCs are putting the pedal to the metal and the pace picks up. Perhaps the PCs are rushing to stop some dire event. In those times, we’ll zip along to maintain the tense mood of the circumstances. It doesn’t make sense to leisurely describe the area when the PCs are perhaps literally running to stop a demon, or whatever. Only throw in encounters if it makes sense to the circumstances and progresses your story rather than derail it.

Ben Eastman. My thoughts on the matter start and end with two items: the story and the fun. How does this impact the story? Is this busy time to get from point A to point B that could be summarized in short scenes, or is there a purpose? Who is actually likely to pose a threat to the PCs? As I think I’ve said before, bad guys aren’t dumb. Thieves may try to clown on low level adventures, but there comes a point where that isn’t a reasonable threat to your players anymore.

If there is a purpose and a reasonable threat, my last question is this. Will the players find this fun? I can design a cool mechanic until the cows come home, but maybe the PCs are focused on the story at hand. I don’t want to disrupt that with beltway traffic.

Basheer Ghouse. As a GM, you need to decide if you’re going to use that random encounter table based on if you want to spice up transit at the moment or for session pacing, not because you feel like you ought to draw out walking across town. 

Remember, pre-modern cities are tiny by our standards. There’s a decent chunk of time where the town of Arle fit inside of its own colosseum. Walking across a city is like a couple of miles even in fairly large pre-modern metropoles, and cities that preserve their historic districts or walls often serve as a good illustration of this. 

The exception is if the city has functionally become a dungeon for whatever reason. For example, if your players are wanted dead by the entire city or there’s a magical catastrophe running rampant. In that case, I’d prefer to run it as a pointcrawl. 

Sebastian Rombach. That’s a good point about city size expectations. And boiling the decision down to have a scene or not when you want to maintain tension or release it is one of those intermediate GM techniques that doesn’t always get covered in a beginner’s primer. That sort of thing comes with experience; watching the clock and your players and letting the dice and your judgment decide the next course of action.

I’ve tried several different approaches to this topic before but have yet to find one that really sings for me. At one point I devised a turf war story arc that was played by wresting control of the Midgard city of Triolo’s districts from occupying mob bosses. Unfortunately, that became too worker-placement board gamey and took up too much of the time my group had available to play.  

Phillip Larwood. I handle player traversal of cities and towns organically, letting the group determine the pace at which they explore a location and interact with it. If the players want to thoroughly explore the city, then I’ll describe the trip in greater detail. If, on the other hand, they just want to get some equipment for their latest dungeon foray, I’ll let them get from point A to point B without a hitch and let them get on with what they want to do. The only time I’ll actually throw random encounters in a city traversal is if there is a sizable lull in the action and the players seem bored.

Mike Welham. For me, it depends on the purpose. If the city is just a waystop on the way to another destination, I might point out the local tavern. If the players seem like they’re expecting to encounter something, I’m happy to oblige, and I will define some alleyways or decide on some local intrigue or problem; if the city is prepublished, I’ll peruse the adventure seeds for inspiration. If the city is the destination, then I’ll have the players work out how their plan to travel through the city. This gives me the chance to plan a bit myself with encounters related to the ongoing plot and maybe a random sprinkling dealing with intrigues related to the city at large. Often, the players surprise me and latch onto one of these random encounters and I can flesh that out further into a side quest.

What Do You Think?

How would you handle this situation? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have a question for the pack? Let our pros weigh in on your tough questions. Then check back first Friday of each month for more Pack Tactics!

about Sebastian Rombach

We can neither confirm nor deny that Sebastian is actually three raccoons in a trenchcoat. His freelance contributions can be found in Tome of Beasts 2, Tome of Heroes, and more. You can roll dice with him at https://startplaying.games/gm/dontbreakthedm or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @dontbreakthedm.

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