The Alexandrian

Town Generator - Last Gasp

Since we’re talking about urbancrawls lately, my attention was immediately arrested when I saw a couple of pretty amazing city generators over at Last Gasp.

Both of them are dice-drop generators, which reminds me of the fun you can have with Vornheim, but they’re integrated with prodigious random tables. The first is a generator for small, Lovecraftian-style fantasy towns: The dice drop generates a layout for the buildings and the faces of the dice are used iteratively to form factions, feuds, leadership… It’s fantastic. Check it out here.

In Cörpathium - Last Gasp

The other generator creates a particular iteration of the ever-shifting magical city of Cörpathium, which draws its inspiration from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. The dice drop in this generator determines the relative locations of city districts and then (this is the cool part) generates a whole bunch of conditionals based on which districts are present and how they relate to each other. You can find it here.

Go to Part 1

The pair of questions I keep coming back to are: Why are the PCs urbancrawling? And what are they actually doing when they “crawl”?

And I think the reason I’m struggling with those questions is because, in an urban environment, their answers are very dependent on the specific context of the PCs’ actions.

This dependence is the result of the city being an extremely dynamic place: In a dungeon there’s generally just one interesting thing happening in a room. In the wilderness the interesting thing is separated from other interesting things by miles or leagues of scenery. But in the city there’s so much activity so densely packed that any given block (or even building) will often have dozens of different things happening in it. The question of which of those things you’ll end up engaging with is highly dependent on the experiences that you choose to seek out.

Having recognized this Gordian knot, we now have to seek the sword that can slice through it. And I think the key here is to stop thinking of the city as a monolithic entity and start thinking of it as being made up of diverse parts. We need to manage the dynamic nature of the city by breaking it apart into distinct layers. The city is not a single urbancrawl, but rather a multitude of urbancrawls that lie on top of each other in a simultaneous coexistence.


Dweredell - Dream Machine Productions

Let’s start with the base of the city: The gazetteer. This is the Baedaeker’s travel guide version of the city. It’s the list of useful shops, taverns, inns, and Important Public Locations.

The gazetteer isn’t an urbancrawl. Although it might be interesting to build some of this stuff into an “Explore the City” urbancrawl layer for those completely new to the city, the stuff in the gazetteer constitutes the elements of the city that will generally be visited through targeted travel. For ease of reference, putting these locations in a gazetteer format makes the most sense.

The other thing you’re going to want forming the foundation of your city is the map. And you’re going to want to split that map up into naturalistic divisions. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to them as districts, but in the game world they could be anything: Neighborhoods, wards, sectors, gang territory, streets, or whatever. You’re aiming for districts that make sense to the characters actually living in the city (they’re labels or divisions that they would recognize and talk about). But you’re also aiming for a districting concept that scales to the amount of material you’re planning to include in each layer of the urbancrawl. (This is just like a hexcrawl: If you find yourself frequently keying multiple entries into a single district, your scale is probably too large. If you find yourself with a lot of empty districts, your scale is probably too small.)


Over the top of this foundation – the gazetteer and the map – you’re going to layer in your urbancrawls.

Unlike a dungeoncrawl, the goal of an urbancrawl doesn’t default to treasure hunting. It defaults to finding something interesting. If the PCs are fairly ignorant of what the city has to offer (or are simply looking for new opportunities), then this idea of “finding something interesting” can remain fairly generic. But as the PCs learn more about the city, the action will inevitably become contextualized: Instead of saying, “Let’s see what’s going on in the Longbotttom neighborhood.” they’ll start saying things like, “We need to find out if there’s a blood den near Powderhorn Park.” or “Maybe we can figure out what the Halfling Mafia has been up to.”

Each urbancrawl layer basically boils down to one way in which the content of the city can be contextualized. In a given city, for example, you might have separate urbancrawl levels for:

  • Vampire blood dens.
  • Patrons who can give them jobs.
  • The activities of a criminal gang.
  • Potential targets for lucrative heists.
  • Purely random encounters that provide “color”.

Each of these urbancrawls would (ideally) have interesting material keyed in every district of the city. So if the PCs go poking around the Longbottom neighborhood they might find the local vampire den. Or get contacted by agents of Lord Melbourne. Or run into mafiosos hassling local businesses. Or discover that a local merchant family currently holds the Neferelli Diamond. Or get their pockets picked by goblin urchins.

(Having five full layers like this would probably represent a really dense urbancrawl. It would require a lot of prep, but it would also deliver hundreds of hours of play. My guess, though, is that you probably only need 2 or 3 layers to get a really dynamic urbancrawl started.)


This basic structure of urbancrawl layers is probably sufficient for running a simple urbancrawl. But I’m going to propose that you can add significant depth to your city by extending its urbancrawl layers into a third dimension.

You’re going to take one of your existing urbancrawls and you’re going to add layers to it. These deeper layers won’t necessarily be complete (in the sense that they’ll fill every district in the city with content), so it may be more convenient to think of them as “hidden nodes”.

The idea is that these hidden nodes can’t be directly or immediately accessed by anybody ‘crawling the city. Instead, they can generally only be accessed in one of two ways:

First, districts in the “lower levels” of the urbancrawl may contain clues that will point directly at these hidden nodes. For example, PCs raiding a vampire blood den may discover correspondence from Count Ormu implicating him as a vampire lord.

Second, these hidden nodes can be “exposed” to people ‘crawling the city if certain conditions are met. These conditions would generally take the form of “clearing” lower level nodes. For example, if various adventuring parties take out three of the blood dens in the city, Count Ormu’s network may be sufficiently disrupted to expose his involvement.

This second condition is particularly important for open tables because it solves the “I didn’t get the clues from the first half of this mystery” problem: If you’ve got the clues pointing at Count Ormu, great. If you don’t, but the blood den networks have been sufficiently disrupted by other groups, then Count Ormu becomes available to you through general ‘crawling.

In conceptualizing these hidden nodes, it may be useful to reflect once again on Kenneth Hite’s Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents, which provided the most immediate inspiration for this added dimension:

Conspyramid - Night's Black Agents

You don’t necessarily need to engage in the same rigid hierarchy or chains of communication (the geographic component of the urbancrawl will cover a lot of the same bases), but it also can’t hurt, right?

Of course, the third dimension of some urbancrawls will be more conceptual rather than organizational: Different targets for heists, for example, may not be directly connected, but you can still add additional levels to a heist-based urbancrawl layer (representing the attention of more powerful clients or security arrangements which have been exposed or simply a pacing mechanic for heists over time).

Go to Part 11: The Investigation Action

Futurese: The American Language in 3000 AD” is an interesting extrapolation of where linguistic trends will take the language over the next 1,000 years. It’s a useful reminder that the English we speak is in a state of constant change.

One thing I will note, however, is that “Futurese” seems to be postulating a shift in English over the next 1,000 years that’s fairly equivalent to the shift in the language over the last 1,000 years. In doing so, I think it’s ignoring two vital factors:

First, the advent of print and widespread literacy had a significant effect in slowing vocabulary shifts.

Second, film and television seem to have had a massive arresting effect on pronunciation shifts.

William Shakespeare provides a valuable example of the former: His works are 400 years old and are definitely filled with archaisms. But the differences between modern English and Shakespeare pale in comparison to the differences between Shakespeare and the stuff written in 1200 AD. In fact, the vast majority of the shift away from Shakespeare’s English happened in the 100-150 years after his death: You can read commentators in the mid-18th century and the vast majority of the passages we have difficulty with in Shakespeare today are the same passages they were having difficulty with then. At the midpoint between us and Shakespeare is Jane Austen, whose English is essentially modern.

The baseline for the second point is obviously much shorter and might just represent a coincidental lull period in the evolution of pronunciation. But I don’t think so. I think the fact that we are regularly listening to words spoken 50 or 80 years ago is providing a consistent pressure that prevents (or at least radically slows) significant shifts in pronunciation which were common prior to the advent of sound recordings.

Go to Part 1

By 1982, urban RPG supplements had pretty much universally transitioned to become narrative-backdrop travel guides: The modern gazetteer format that generally features a history of the city, a description of notable locations, and a cast of important NPCs. (Vestigial rumor tables hung around here and there for a few more years, but generallyL5R: City of Lies - Greg Stolze faded away until the OSR began bringing them back into vogue.)

Which is not, of course, to say that there aren’t some truly fantastic city supplements. I actually ended up surveying a lot of great stuff while researching these posts: The City of Greyhawk boxed set, the truly prodigious combination of FR1 Waterdeep and the North with the Forgotten Realms: City System Boxed Set, Greg Stolze’s City of Lies for L5R, Monte Cook’s Ptolus, Chicago by Night, City of Freeport, and so forth. It’s just that they’re being designed for a narrative-based game structure that’s not particularly illuminating when it comes to urbancrawling.

Recently, however, we’re starting to see a resurgence in games that are willing to get a little experimental with their game structures. (This has been particularly true among STGs, but it’s also happening with RPGs.) The result has been a handful of “new school” urbancrawls.


Dresden Files - Volume 2: Our World - Evil HatWhen I first started chattering about urbancrawls, a lot of people pointed me in the direction of the Dresden Files. This game has gotten a lot of buzz for its robust city-creation system and I was told it might be exactly what I was looking for.

Unfortunately, it’s not.

The city-creation system in Dresden Files is really a campaign creation system in which the creation of the city is tied to the creation of the PCs and the players share narrative responsibilities in defining the themes, threats, and locations which define the city. It’s a nifty approach (and I recommend checking it out), but the focus is still on creating a backdrop for narratives.


Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents has an international focus, but it features two very clever systems for running conspiracy-based sandbox campaigns that I think may prove useful in our thinking about urbancrawls.

First, there’s the Conspyramid. When you’re prepping your campaign you draw up a Conspyramid with six levels of power: “Each ascending level has fewer, more important nodes.” So, at street-level power you’ve got six different nodes. Bump it up a couple levels to provincial powers and you’ve got four different nodes.

Conspyramid - Night's Black Agents

The Conspyramid is useful because it simultaneously shows the GM how the organization of the conspiracy works (in an abstract way) and how the PCs can investigate the conspiracy.

The Conspyramid is clever because Hite also ties it mechanically into the game mechanics: As the players fill out their adversary map (i.e., figuring out how the conspiracy hooks together), they gain dedicated pools of points to spend on ops targeting connected nodes on the Conspyramid. They can also use Human Terrain and Traffic Analysis skills to figure out the connections between a node they know and other nodes (i.e., generating leads).

That’s a default goal, a default reward, and a default action.

Hite then adds a second track in the form of the Vampyramid:

Vampyramid - Night's Black Agents

He describes this as an “escalating response algorithm” which provides the vampire conspiracy with a naturalistic response to the PCs: So the Conspyramid represents a largely static ‘crawl; the Vampyramid provides easy-to-manage active responses.

It’s the most innovative, creative, and gobsmackingly brilliant work I’ve seen on an RPG game structure in over a decade. Hite’s a genius and you should check it out.

While these structures cannot be directly applied to the type of urbancrawling structure we’re looking for, where I think the NBA systems are extremely informative is the intersection of investigative “layers” combined with default, mechanically-driven investigative actions. (We’ll come back to this idea shortly.)


Vornheim by Zak S. proffers a quote about Moving vs. Crawling which is so extremely useful that I’m going to provide it here in full:
Vornheim - Zak S.

In a dungeon or wilderness adventure everything is hard – navigating, finding food, getting a decent night’s sleep, etc. – and so everything is part of the adventure. Adventuring in a city is different from adventuring in a dungeon or wilderness because cities are actually meant for habitation. In most cities, many things will be easy and therefore not part of the adventure and the GM has to do a great deal of deciding when to “zoom in” and deal with the situations in more detail. For this reason we’re going to create a distinction between simply “moving” through the city and “crawling” through it. (…)

“Crawling” occurs when:

• The PCs are being chased.
• The PCs are in a hurry.
• A large number of elements in the city are actively hostile to the PCs (such as during an invasion or plague of madness).
• The PCs are systematically searching a small area of the city for something.
• The PCs are trying to avoid running into someone or something.
• It’s night.
• The city is transformed in some way such that it ceases to function like a city (post-nuclear bomb, etc.).
• The PCs don’t really know where they’re going.
• There’s urgency attached to the PC’s decisions about how to proceed for any reason.

A lot of the Old School Renaissance has largely spent its time regurgitating the forms and content of the ‘70s and early-‘80s. (And, don’t get me wrong, produced a lot of good material doing it.) Vornheim is a prime example of the OSR being a little more daring, grounding itself in the old school material, and then innovating.

For ‘crawling, Vornheim creates a pair of simple structures: If you’re crawling from neighborhood to neighborhood (i.e., trying to traverse the city) you generate one random encounter per neighborhood. If you’re crawling within a neighborhood (i.e., they’re trying to find something in the neighborhood) he uses a method of rolling 2d10 and using:

• The relative position of the dice to determine where the goal of the ‘crawl is relative to the PCs.

• The number on the die to determine the layout of streets between them and their destination. (Literally. You can check out the diagrams of how this works here.)

It’s a very clever and quick system. Where it comes a little short is in providing structure for making the journey from Point A to Point B a meaningful/interesting one.

What makes Vornheim truly invaluable in any discussion about urbancrawling, however, is the plethora of incredibly cool, incredibly useful, and incredibly original tools that Zak has designed for procedural content generation. (This is something I talked about in my Fun With Vornheim series, which you should check out for some awesome examples of what the book is capable of.)


Technoir is another system I’ve talked about quite a bit. It’s got an incredibly clever resolution mechanic, but what makes the game truly exceptional are its plot-mapping mechanics.

The short version is that the game is built around “transmissions” which each describe a city of the future. Each transmission consists of six connections, six events, six factions, six locations, six objects, and six threats. These are organized into a 6 x 6 master grid which allows you to randomly generate elements and add them to your plot map.

Technoir - Jeremy KellerBy itself, that’s a nice little procedural generator. But Technoir takes it one step further by including explicit mechanics for how elements are added to the plot map, and the primary method is controlled by the PCs: Whenever they hit up one of their contacts for information, an element is generated based on the contact’s current relationship to the plot and it’s connected to the map based on situational mechanics as well.

(A lengthier example of using the Technoir system can be found here.)

The result is a robust improvisational structure which has the delightful property of allowing the GM to discover the “true conspiracy” of their ‘noir adventure at the same time that their players are investigating it. (It’s also a system which could be very easily translated to any genre or setting.)

In terms of urbancrawling, the key insight from Technoir is the ‘crawl action itself: Hitting up your contact.

What makes this notable is that this is not a decision about geographic navigation, but it nevertheless fulfills the same exploratory function. The only limitation is that this is a mystery-based structure and, as you’ve probably gotten sick of me saying, mysteries don’t work for open table play. Technoir solves the problem of being unable to solve the mystery if you missed the clues in the first half (by utilizing a structure which constantly manifests new clues), but you still have the problem of players experiencing the first half of a mystery and never getting the satisfaction of its solution. (But if you want an urbancrawling structure and you don’t need it to support open table play, then I enthusiastically recommend Technoir.)

Go to Part 10: One City, Many Urbancrawls

One of the more difficult passages to untangle in Richard II is found in Act II, Scene 1. Immediately following the death of the Duke of Lancaster, Richard announces that he’s claiming all of Lancaster’s property for himself in order to pay for the Irish wars:

RICHARD And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, coin, revenues, and moveables
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.

The Duke of York’s response is immediate:

YORK How long shall I be patient? Ah how long
Shall tender duty make me suffer wrong?
Not Gloucester’s death, nor Herford’s banishment
Not Gaunt’s rebukes, nor England’s private wrongs…

And he continues in this vein for 23 lines, laying out a point-by-point lamentation of Richard’s tyrannies, before at last exclaiming:

“Oh Richard: York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.”

And in response to this extraordinary tirade, Richard says:

RICHARD Why, uncle, what’s the matter?

It doesn’t seem to make much sense, and it causes York to deliver 22 lines in which he pleads with Richard to change his tune. Richard’s still having none of it when he responds:

RICHARD Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

York responds by leaving the stage and Richard moves on to formally announcing the beginning of his Irish campaign, going on to specify:

RICHARD And we create in absence of ourself
Our uncle York lord governor of England;
For he is just and always loved us well.

… wait a minute. Did Richard just watch the same scene we did?

It’s a challenge routinely faced by actors playing Richard II: How do you listen to York rant at you for 50+ lines and then act as if (a) you didn’t hear him and (b) it didn’t actually happen?

Many critics have judged Richard’s trust in York as an act of folly and point to this moment as proof of its foolhardiness. But there’s a rather large line between “making a mistake” and “being completely disconnected from reality to the point that it shatters the audience’s suspension of disbelief”, and Richard seems to be rather firmly crossing that line.


When something doesn’t make sense to me in Shakespeare I find it helpful to assume that I’m the one making a mistake. Shakespeare wasn’t always perfect, of course, but I’ve often found it valuable to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’ve either overlooked something or based my conclusions on a poor assumption.

Which brings us back to the root of the problem: How can Richard possibly hear everything York says and then respond the way he does?

Maybe he doesn’t.

One of the truths in working with a Shakespearean text is that most of the stage directions are missing. Even basic entrances and exits are often omitted, and finding a description of the internal action of the scene is a little like discovering buried treasure. Without those stage directions, we’re often left looking for clues in the text to guide our understanding of how a scene is supposed to be played.

So what if our common sense is misguiding us here? What if York isn’t talking to Richard (who just finished speaking), but to himself?

Saying, “Why, uncle, what’s the matter?” is absurd if you’ve just listened to York deliver a 23-line speech describing exactly what the matter is. But it’s completely different matter if you’ve suddenly become aware that your uncle is in some sort of distress on the opposite side of the stage.

First, is this staging possible? Yes. Richard has just issued a formal decree that Lancaster’s possessions are to be seized. It proved remarkably easy for Richard and his nobles to immediately “huddle up” to discuss the details of the plan, move up stage, and leave York alone to speak with the audience.

Second, is the staging plausible? In the case of Richard’s response, we can see that that this staging actually helps to make sense of his line. But is it consistent with what York is saying? This is a more complicated question. On the one hand, York begins by speaking of Richard in the third person (“… have ever made me sour my patient cheek or bend one wrinkle on my sovereign’s face”), which would be consistent with a soliloquy. But then he begins to speak in the second-person as if addressing Richard directly: “I am the last of noble Edward’s sons, of whom thy father Prince of Wales was first.” This language certainly leads one into the more traditional interpretation of direct confrontation. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for Shakespeare’s characters to address others rhetorically even when they aren’t available for a response. (For example, when Hamlet says, “Remember thee? Aye, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted body.” We don’t need to assume that the Ghost didn’t actually exit several lines earlier, as indicated in the text, in order for the line to make sense.)

(In the rehearsal room we also experimented with York talking to someone other than Richard in a private conversation, but when we did we found the rhetorical device of referring to Richard in the second person without Richard being present stopped working. Not all experiments are destined to succeed.)

Third, are there any textual clues that strongly support our interpretation? Here we find nothing definitive, but in our exploration we spotted a few elements of the text which certainly proved very effective for our purposes.

For example, York closes his first speech by saying:

Oh Richard: York is too far gone with grief,
Or else he never would compare between.

Shakespeare’s “O” (or “Oh”) is generally a large moment. It’s an open syllable that can be easily extended to any length while allowing an actor to pour an immense amount of emotional content into it. If York is speaking to himself, then we need a large and clearly delineated moment at the end of his speech which can draw Richard’s attention from across the stage. And Shakespeare, in building York’s anguish to this “Oh”, has given us such a moment and coupled it directly to Richard’s name.

Richard’s line, of course, is the driving force behind our concept. And it is followed by the beginning of York’s next speech:

“Oh my liege, pardon me if you please; if not,
I please not to be pardon’d, am content with all:”

In general, one would expect to ask forgiveness for something already said or request pardon for something they about to say. It’s possible that York is trying to do both here, but it’s interesting how naturally this reads like a response to an honest question of concern from Richard. (“Since you’ve asked, I’ll tell you. But please forgive me for what I’m about to say.”) And perhaps some clue to its nature as preamble can be found in that colon which so neatly launches the actor into the speech to come.

In short, we found this approach extremely effective in the rehearsal room. In the process we began referring to it as a “public soliloquy” ““ a speech in which we find a character expressing their innermost thoughts using the same techniques as the soliloquy, despite the fact that they aren’t truly alone onstage. In doing so, we inadvertently unlocked a deeper understanding of the play as a whole: These public soliloquys can be found throughout the entirety of Richard II, often emphasizing a character’s frustration, impotence, or humiliation. Richard, in particular, engages in the act of public soliloquy frequently, but (as we can see here) he’s not the only one. (They even arguably manage to find their way offstage, if one interprets Bullingbrooke’s “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?”, reported by Sir Exton in Act V, Scene 5, as the public expression of a private thought.)

Thus, interpreting this passage as a public soliloquy not only helps to solve an immediate textual problem, but also proves to be consistent with both the theme and structure of the play as a whole.

Originally posted on September 28th, 2010.



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