The Alexandrian

Thinking About Urbancrawls

January 7th, 2015

Alex Drummond

Many moons ago I presented a series of essays on Game Structures in roleplaying games: Learning them, prepping for them, using them, creating them, and so forth. What’s about to follow may make a bit more sense if you click through that link first.

One of the things that was originally supposed to be part of that essay series was a discussion of urbancrawls: A structure that would have completed the triumvirate of dungeoncrawl-hexcrawl-urbancrawl and given an essentially “complete” structure for running exploration-based fantasy campaign worlds.

When I started the Game Structures series I thought I was really close to cracking the urbancrawl nut. But as I wrote the series, it became clear that I was not as close as I thought I was. I eventually excised the discussion of urbancrawls from the series, but was fairly confident I would be able to solve the problems and present it independently in the very near future.

Six months have passed since then. (And another year and a half since I wrote the previous sentence.) And I still don’t think I’ve solved it.


First, let me clarify something: I am not trying to figure out how to run urban adventures. With the recent uptick in people being interested in dungeoncrawls and hexcrawls, I’ve seen a fair amount of people using the term “urbancrawl” to just mean “a D&D adventure that happens to be set in a city”. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

If that was what I was talking about, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. My current 3.5 campaign – set entirely within the city of Ptolus – has been running for 100+ sessions. I know how to run effective adventures and entire campaigns that are set in a city. Node-based scenario design is a flexible tool and I’m not afraid to use it.


What I’m looking for right now, though, is an urbancrawl. A scenario structure that would use the same fundamental principles that dungeoncrawls and hexcrawls use.

Let’s take a moment to review the characteristics of a ‘crawl (based on our analysis of the dungeoncrawl and hexcrawl):

  1. It uses a map with keyed locations. (This provides a straight-forward prep structure.)
  2. Characters transition between keyed locations through simple, geographic movement. (This provides a default action and makes it easy to prep robust scenarios.)
  3. There’s an exploration-based default goal. (This motivates player engagement with the material and also synchronizes with the geographic-based navigation through the scenario.)
  4. Characters can engage, disengage, and re-engage with the scenario. (You can go into a dungeon, fight stuff for awhile, leave, and when you come back the dungeon will still be there.)

This fourth property appears to exist because:

(A) Material within the ‘crawl structure is firewalled. (In general, area 20 of a dungeon isn’t dependent on area 5.)

(B) The default goal is holographic. (You can explore some of the wilderness or get some of the treasure and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.)

(C) The default goal is non-specific. (You can get a bunch of treasure from Dungeon A then get more treasure from Dungeon B and still be accomplishing your goal of Getting Lots of Treasure.)

(D) The default goal isn’t interdependent. (You can clear the first half of a dungeon and somebody else can clear the second half. By contrast, you can’t solve the second half of a mystery unless you’ve got the clues from the first half.)

The dungeoncrawl structure provides these features for location-based adventures. The hexcrawl structure provides these features for wilderness-based adventures. A fully functional urbancrawl structure would theoretically provide these features for city-based adventures.


If I can already use node-based structures to run urban-based scenarios, why am I interested in figuring out this “urbancrawl” thing?

Open game tables.

My current open table campaign started with dungeoncrawling. It later expanded to include a surrounding hexcrawl. In both cases, however, I had vestigial cities hanging out as “home bases” for the PCs: They were safe havens and places where they could resupply, but active adventuring wasn’t taking place there.

And it wasn’t taking place despite the fact that I had specifically prepped them the way I normally prep cities: With interesting NPCs and scenario hooks hanging all over the place. In non-open campaigns all of those hooks would get developed using node-based structures as the players explored them. But node-based structures are generally interdependent, specific, and non-holographic: When every week sees a different group of PCs sitting at my table, the node-based structures don’t work. They fall apart.

But if I could develop an urbancrawl scenario structure that works the same way the other ‘crawl structures work, then I would be able to prep effective material and the players would know how to engage it.

Beyond the open table, I’m also just generally fascinated to see how an exploration-based urban environment would develop in play. I also suspect it would give rise to a lot of interesting, faction-based play and also open up alternative realm management possibilities. (But those are just gut instincts, obviously, since the structure doesn’t actually exist yet.)


I think I’m narrowing in on an urbancrawl structure, but it’s not quite gelling for me. So I’m hoping to present my own thoughts on the topic, open up a dialogue, get some feedback, and maybe crack this thing once and for all.

Go to Part 2: Applying the ‘Crawl

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30 Responses to “Thinking About Urbancrawls”

  1. Steamtunnel says:

    I think you may have missed the forest for the b-trees. What is a city if not a large contracted high population multi-route point crawl? A series on point crawls would be helpful and would also offer a solution to the urban crawl.

  2. brotherwilli says:

    Have you considered having characters affiliated with guilds or other organizations who have ongoing goals within the city that can provide a means of engagement? For example:

    The City has a great market, holy to the God of Law, where only commerce is allowed and politics forbidden. Faithful PCs may be asked by the Temple of the God of law to root out a group of thieves who have set up behind some stalls. Other PCs associated with a lord of the city may asked to clandestinely monitor bribes being given to several merchants to curry their favor for a rival.

    Similarly, the City has a ruined keep along the outskirts by the river. PCs associated with the temple of law are told that there are slavers who ship along the river from the keep at night that should be disrupted. PCs associated with the lord are told that the keep is a good place to intercept illegal trade of young griffons that he would like stopped.

    In each instance, there is an ongoing activity in a location, a goal for the PCs, and a variety of ways to achieve the goal. Each of these should be short enough to be a “one-session” activity. Each does not preclude other interesting encounters within the location by different PCs (who may have a different mission). Each encourages the PCs to explore through the City as they go to the location to complete their activity.

  3. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    Your prior series posited that there are a couple of key elements to a ‘crawl structure that facilitate play: a default goal and a default action. Applying that to the urbancrawl seems a little problematic to me. If you’re exploring a ruined city, then you could just use either the dungeoncrawl or hexcrawl structures (or a combination). But presumably by urbancrawl you mean adventuring in an urban setting that is not explicitly hostile. So the default goal is … whatever brought the players into the city, I guess.

    If it’s their home base, they are presumably doing what PCs typically do at their home base:
    * healing
    * selling loot acquired elsewhere
    * purchasing equipment
    * research
    * carousing
    * …

    And the default action for goal X is “go to the district where I can accomplish X, and then do it.”

    That said, and without thinking too much about it, I guess I’d be inclined to some kind of district-based key, kind of like a hexcrawl, with a key for each district. For a small town, there might only be 2 or 3 districts; a big city could have many tens of districts. I would seed your adventure hooks and interesting NPCs in logical districts, and also note key locations (the party’s favorite magic shop, the inn they stay at, and so on). You could have a random encounter table for each district; some entries would be generic city encounters, some would be with the notable NPCs of the district, some would be from neighboring districts (the encounter would say: roll on the table for an adjacent district), and maybe some would be along the lines of “you spot a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place you’ve never noticed before; the smell is heavenly.”

    Depending on how much detail you predetermine in terms of what services are available in each district, you might discover new resources by just wandering the streets (“whoa, a potion shop! Never noticed that before”) and you can just add it to your notes for the district. Then when some other group from the open table is in that district, you know that resource is there and you will know the answer when they start asking passerby “is there anyplace around here a guy can buy a healing potion?”

    Similarly you could establish factions (thieves’ guild, city watch, cult of armageddon, masked vigilantes, charitable healers…) in different districts, and as they are established in different areas and interact with PCs you add to your notes.

    This seems workable, but I guess I wonder how much demand there is for this.

    Disclaimer: I’m sick and the cold medication may have me babbling incoherently.

  4. Beoric says:

    Assuming you are using a relatively standard city (i.e. not a city that has been contrived to work like a dungeon), I think you are going to have to apply a different model. Your biggest problems is with the exploration based default goal, for two main reasons:

    1. Movement through public spaces is generally unimpeded. That is, it does not present many obstacles for which the standard response (kill the monster) is neither appropriate nor necessary. And your game plays like SecondLife.

    2. Movement through private spaces is impeded, but elicits a different response from what you would expect in a dungeon. If you go from house to house, kill the occupants, and take their stuff, the default response of the city dwellers is to alert the authorities or hire private contractors to hunt you. At that point, you lose exploration as a default goal (it has changed to escape/hiding), and the table can’t be open, because the hunters are looking for specific individuals.

    You also need a new default action for encounters, since killing everyone you encounter changes the default goal and the openness of the table pretty quickly.

    Basically, if you want it to work as a crawl, you either need to change the city so that it effectively resembles a dungeon, or change the default goal to something other than exploration. Both the second and third posts above change the default goal.

    You probably also will need to change the transitions between encounters to something other than simple, geographic based movement. Unless the urban environment they are exploring is a department store or a shopping mall, where all your adventuring needs are kept in the same place.

    I think the simplest model you can employ to attempt to achieve your goal is to have all of the characters belong to the same organization. The goals of the organization become the default goal, and since the organization can consist of many individuals, who transfer in or out or cover shifts for each other, it can work with an open table.

    Of course, unless the organization’s goal is the physical occupation of territory (like Beirut in the 80s or a Thieves’ Guild war for territory), you are still not going to have simple geographical movement as the default.

    You may just have to acknowledge that cities are inherently more complex than dungeons or wilderness (for our purposes, anyway), and that they don’t lend themselves to the simplify of a crawl.

    If you want to try to figure out a default goal that works, I suggest you list all of the activities and goals that your players commonly engage in while in the city, and see if you can find any commonalities.

    Personally I don’t think it is worth it. I have been thinking for a while about a future open table urban campaign. The model I am using includes having all of the PCs be part of the same adventuring guild, basing it in a city that includes sewers and underground complexes that are essentially dungeons, and not limiting myself to non-node based design structures.

  5. DanJW says:

    Great article an question.

    I would begin by looking at scales. In play, scale drill down to the highest level necessary for the circumstance.

    In a dungeon crawl the scale hierarchy normally goes:
    dungeon>level>room>grid square

    A wilderness hexcrawl goes something like:
    Region>terrain mass (eg a forest of mountain range)>Hex and then maybe>location>square?

    Somepeople use a two or more different scales of Hexagon as well.

    I would posit that an urban crawl scale hierarchy goes something like:
    city>district>neighbourhood>street>grid square

    and that a different scale be used in interiors, more similar to dungeons.

    Secondly, just as a dungeon room has dressing, inhabitants and other notes, so should an urban neighbourhood or street. Some of these attributes might be:

    Population level: eg deserted/quiet/busy/crowded (can vary as time of day.
    Type of population eg wealth, races present.
    Level of lawkeeper presence.
    Character of buildings and road surface.
    Street furniture.
    landmarks – can be things like a statue or fountain but also shops and other buildings that stand out and that invite further investigation.

    Stealth will be affected not just by lighting and street furniture but also but the population. It is easier to hide in a crowd and easier still if your appearance is not unusual eg race, clothing, equipment.

    So just as in a dungeon the room’s atmosphere is generated by it’s description and contents, so should this apply to the atmosphere of a neighbourhood.

    Finally, exploration rules – in a dungeon this is characterised by room to room and searching of the contents. In wilderness it is hex-to-hex and systems like tracking or navigation.

    For urbancrawl I would guess neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood and searching particular points eg a specific street, square, area around a landmark. In an Urbancrawl characters are likely to searching for a particular person or building rather than a small object. If the system uses spot checks these will important, and in any system asking to look for special cues eg a man with a blue hat, or a building with a green lamp in the window.

    Cities are some of the most complex places imaginable so there will lots of ways to approach this, but a good start would be a combination of dungeon and hexcrawl rules to make them consistent with the rest of the game, with simplification important to keep pace up.

  6. Todd Haynes says:

    So a few things come to mind as I read the article and the resulting comments.
    Leland J. Tankersley mentioned that part of the problem is that “…adventuring in an urban setting that is not explicitly hostile”. Beoric echoed that sentiment, “Movement through public spaces is generally unimpeded.”

    I think in many cases part of the problem is that our systems and experience leans heavily towards combat as the primary encounter interaction. Most of the long-time GMs I know can throw out dungeon crawl encounter tropes at you all day (the magical statue/fountain/etc., the ambushing tribe of , the great beast trapped/imprisoned in the depths, etc.). Most of these are routed in a life or death struggle, or at least one that represents great risk and reward. It seems to me there are 2 main reasons this translates poorly ot the urban crawl.

    First, we have a harder time coming up with interesting urban encouters that we can effectively play. There are plenty of tropes out there, from book and screen, but a lot of the social interaction mechanics I’ve used are either ill equipped to emulate the interaction, or we’re just not experienced enough at social role playing to use them effectively. As the original article pointed out, you see these kinds of things used effectively in settings like mystery games, but they rely heavily on a great web of causality and interdependence to get there, which would negate much of the desired structural requirements for a crawl.

    Second, it’s difficult to justify encounters laced with great risk/reward lying unmolested in a highly populated area. Our first thought is usually that someone would have already resolved it, and it strains your credibility if things only go awry when the heroes are around (unless you’re writing a weekly action-based TV show, but even they laugh at themselves for this).

    So the trick, I believe, is to

    1. Come up with a stable of localized, interesting “encounters” that can believably exist amongst the population and stability of an urban setting, and

    2. Have the right mechanics for resolving social interactions that makes them as engaging and rich for the players as combat.

    One last thought before I go: another complication I’ve encountered in past games is the reactionary interconnectedness of urban settings. It often seems that whenever anything of interest happens in a complex urban setting, it rapidly escalates to include local authorities, militia, concerned citizens, other wandering adventurers, etc. The inherent connectivity we as 21st Century humans tend to attribute to an urban setting can often create “logical” escalations that are problematic in play. Your urban crawl will need to avoid this property of the setting, perhaps through the “hive of scum and villany” trope, or with small, well-defined but ultimately uncooperative neighborhoods, or maybe just an overwhelming ambient noise level that tends to isolate anything short of a riot or big magics.

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    This is great stuff.

    @steamtunnel: Point-crawling is definitely something I looked at. For those unfamiliar with the concept, you can check out the excellent series over at Hill Cantons.

    In a few days, I’ll be talking about City-State of the Invincible Overlord and the mechanics that suggest that Bob Bledsaw’s players may have actually been navigating the city street-by-street. After goofing around with that for a bit, I came to the conclusion that it’s interesting for PCs who are coming to the city for the first time but would quickly become uninteresting for reasons that I alluded to in The Art of Pacing: It requires the players to make a lot of decisions that nobody really cares about.

    My conclusions vis-a-vis point-crawling were pretty similar: I think it’s got potential for an “exploring the city for the first time” scenario, but it stops feeling natural beyond that point.

    This ultimately comes back to the central tension between “city as a place you live” and “city as a place of adventure” that I kept coming back to: PCs don’t live in the dungeon.

    @Brotherwilli: Definitely. I’ve currently got a system for running realms and organizations (heavily influenced by Greg Stolze’s Realm) that I’m playtesting through my Ptolus campaign. I’m firmly convined that the urbancrawl structure will feed into that the same that hex-clearing and realm management feeds into and out of the hexcrawl.

    @DanJW: That scale stuff is great. I was bashing around some similar thoughts about vertical integration, but that specific conception of “What’s the useful scale” is something that I found essential for grokking hexcrawls. Figuring out how to apply it to the urbancrawl conundrum makes a lot of sense.

    @Todd: “You see these kinds of things used effectively in settings like mystery games, but they rely heavily on a great web of causality and interdependence to get there, which would negate much of the desired structural requirements for a crawl.” Great stuff. Your insights about authorities generally quashing the kinds of big explosions PCs attract are also really valuable.

  8. d47 says:

    I’ve also considered an open game table based in an urban setting but decided it was going to be too much work for me to prepare. I did have some ideas, though.

    One possibility is a city with central authority that is passive or non-existent. It could just be weak or ineffective, or it could be hands-off for political, economic or philosophical reasons, intervening only when its interests are threatened. Yet, the city persists because of valuable trade between bordering nations, for example. It could be a sprawl with a bunch of relatively autonomous neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character. Geography (e.g. rivers, hills) and manmade constructs (e.g. walls, canals) could help keep them separate. Entering the Den of Rogues district might be free to everyone willing to risk it, while entry into the Haven of the High Temple neighborhood might require connections or a commitment to a cause. There might even be whole neighborhoods that are overrun with monsters or undead, only kept in check by the diligence of the adjacent communities. So, unlike a typical city, movement would be constrained and exploration could be dangerous and rewarding.

    Ultimately, I think urban is the way to go for an open game table. No matter where you are in the story at the end of a session, it is relatively easy to say that someone “just went home” if they are not there at the next session. (And, of course, all sorts of interesting things could happen on the way home if you want to have out-of-session sidebars with players.)

  9. d47 says:

    We seem to be writting at the same time, Justin.
    You said, “PCs don’t live in the dungeon.”Ah ha, but what if they did?
    In this world, people do live in cities that are fraught with danger and opportunity. Some people cannot even leave them.
    Unlike a dungeon, it is even more believable when on returning to a location, new opposition and opportunity appears. Players can explore locations over and over, encountering new challenges each time in a city because it is alive.
    Perhaps a city needs to be keyed with a time axis. This could be scaled to include annual, weekly and daily events for each location, but could also include a sequential key based on trigger events. (Players killed the local crime lord in the neighborhood; they return to open warfare among his lieutenants.) Of course, this time axis prep need not all be done in advance. It should just be kept in mind.

  10. John R says:

    Just keying of what d47 said, I think a power vacuum of some sort (civil war, death of an heiress king, etc.) is a good solution to the PC motivation problem for Urbancrawls. Because a city’s landscape is so fixed, exploration is a weak fall back goal. Freeing up the city for some bigger changes as different factions make power plays helps keep things fresh: “Say, why are there flickering lights in that previously abandoned warehouse?” A lack of central authority also frees up the players to be a little bolder than they otherwise would in a city, because their outrageous actions that hurt one faction might be to the advantage of another faction. This allows the players to choose their motivation: maybe they want to aid a particular faction, maybe they want to rule themselves, maybe they just want to help the common man, or maybe they want to capitalize on the disarray to rob everyone blind.

    A big piece of making that work is also finding the solution the scale problem mentioned by other posters. The focus has to get down to streets or street blocks, I think, in order to capture that room to room feel of a dungeon – and then jaquaying that by adding hidden alleys, sweet passages, kindly shopkeepers who let you duck through the back door, in order to make travel through a frequently hostile city more engaging.

  11. WhatisaCity says:

    It is possible that I over think this. A hex crawl doesn’t need to ask about when the primordial rocky plains were first colonized by life. A dungeon crawl that involves full staff work for all forces is not for everyone.

    Cities have anchors that cause them to grow in one area, and not another. Transport, markets, fortifications, manufacturing, governments.

    Cities are made of or for populations. What is going on with the populations? Cities can be a population sink. Cities can be abandoned.

    Cities are made, maintained, and supplied. Who is doing this, if it is being done? Ankh-Morpork is surrounded by cabbage country.

    Is this intended to cover deserted, decaying cities, and partially inhabited cities, in addition to fully inhabited ones? How about over inhabited, ones where either the capacity will be somehow made to increase, or the death rate will increase until things become more manageable?

    In a fully inhabited city there should be places and times where, barring DM choices about system, it would be pretty trivial for the crowd to mob the party to death. Are the party strangers where they are not wanted? Is there illness or missing children? Has the party actually done something?

    Unless they are managing it, which should be risky, they probably ought to avoid any actual riot that occurs.

    The larger and denser the populations, the greater the background level of murder and crime for the PCs to hide their illicit activities in.

    I think I’ll limit my comments on police here to ‘you should at least know why the British felt the need to /adapt/ the French system’, and that our modern paradigm needn’t be universal. (It is ultimately dependent on society, and any brief exhaustive study of history would show some room for relevant variation.)

    Regarding fire, remember Crassus. Also, Japanese firefighting traditions.

    Like in an empire, a central power in a city can keep an otherwise mutually genocidal set of populations from killing each other off. There are limits, a population can be too intent on killing to be tolerated under any circumstances. One probably shouldn’t build a city entirely from the latter, else it’ll auto-depopulate before the PCs have a chance.

    Whatever organizations there are needn’t be unified, uniform, or particularly functional.

    If any PCs are the same blood as a population in the city, especially if they are wading in that population’s filth, they have an opportunity to catch illness from it.

    I’m losing steam to iterate through more features of cities tonight.

    What is obvious to me now is that the party travels in a city made of neighborhoods. These are territories held by populations with some sense of community. The party must be attentive to safe sleeping places, and safe food. The party must figure what neighborhoods are safe to travel how and when. If there is a central power, it either must not care yet, must not automatically notice, or its attempts to have spies inside the party might be a sub plot. They must pay attention to what concerns the people around them.

    Since I just heard some really funny stories about it, I think there should be public housing in mine, or some similar tragedy of the commons driven problematic neighborhood.

    I think a party could, through care, effort, and cleverness, depopulate a city. And not just by raising an army somewhere, defeating whatever military protects it, and either destroying the agricultural populations that support it or sacking it directly, Mongol style.

  12. Margrave says:

    Hi all,

    In order to encourage my players to adventure in the cities of my campaign world, I use several tools. I’m not sure if you can call the result a true ‘urbancrawl’, but this humble information might provide ideas for brighter minds:
    • Every settlement has a statistics block, determining its dominant alignment, level of lawlessness, level of corruption, who’s in charge etc. Big cities consist of several neighborhoods or districts – each with their own stat block. I use the Pathfinder system for my games and found the settlement stat blocks from PF’s Gamemastery Guide an excellent starting point.
    • Now, every district stat block lists 1-4 interesting NPCs; each with a few notes detailing their personal agenda.
    • A particularly fun and effective gimmick I stole from a Knights of the Dinner Table comic is the Rumour Bin. For every major settlement, I create around 100 little handouts (about the size you’d find in a fortune cookie), fold them up and put them in a box. A succesful ‘Gather information’ check allows a player to draw one or more rumours from this box. These rumours are my story seeds; they provide clues to what is going on in the city, who lives where and what his plans are. Naturally, not all of them are going to be true.
    • Supporting all this, you will need a vague idea of what will happen if the PCs do not intervene. Having a rough timeline for these events is a good idea.

    You now have story hooks aplenty (the rumour bin) providing motivation. There’s meaningful choice for the players who want to visit certain districts (the stats of each district affect the DCs of several skill checks made there) and there’s a fair amount of exploration (rather than locations, you’re finding out about people and what they are up to). Scale-wise, you’re not bothered with detailed maps and all, so it handles relatively well on the DM side. For me, it works rather well.

    That’s the short version. If anyone’s interested in taking a look, I’d be happy to send a few examples their way.


  13. Colubris says:

    I’m coming at this from a couple of places. One is games that I’ve enjoyed that are close to city-crawls. GTA: San Andreas stand out as the closest, being that it’s so much fun to ignore the plot lines and raise hell. It was fun to explore and interact, partly because the random spawns (like vehicles and weapons) varied by neighborhood, leading to a kind of alchemy. What I thought it was missing was the ability to influence your city, the way you do in Infamous, for example. The choices in that game (good or evil, simplistically) affect whether the city becomes Utopian or Dystopian.

    On the other side of it, a city is inherently social. Its structure reflects its social nature, with ghettos, burghs, gentrification, etc. A goal in a city crawl can be gold, but so can it be political power, secrets… In short, influence.

    I know you’re focusing on geography here, but what if the city crawl is more like the opposite of a dungeon crawl? The later is geographical and can be deepened with the addition of a social component. The former is social and deepened by its geographical component (in this case, scouting unknown neighborhoods to learn about those in power).

    So your structure becomes:
    1. A map of spheres of influence. Sometimes this will be geographic territory but it will also be trade moguls, people with the noble’s ear, black market suppliers and contacts.
    2. Transition via personal contact. The default action is, “talk to someone.”
    3. Influence-based default goal.
    4. If the socio-political state of the city is inherently stable, then they can leave and come back and pick up where they left off without a problem.
    A. Leaving won’t cause a power vacuum if there are responsible stewards.
    B. Still holographic
    C. Still nonspecific
    D. Still not (necessarily) interdependent

  14. d47 says:

    Colubris is on to something very important. The exploration aspect need not be geographical. It could be about making contacts, developing networks and gaining access. This could work with an open game table as long as the GM and players keep careful track of who knows who and what.

  15. Wyvern says:

    What do you mean by “holographic”? I get what you’re saying in context, but it doesn’t match either of the dictionary definitions of the word.

  16. Justin Alexander says:

    Each part of a hologram contains a different perspective of the object being pictured, but it contains the entire object. As described on Wikipedia: “When a photograph is cut in half, each piece shows half of the scene. When a hologram is cut in half, the whole scene can still be seen in each piece. This is because, whereas each point in a photograph only represents light scattered from a single point in the scene, each point on a holographic recording includes information about light scattered from every point in the scene. It can be thought of as viewing a street outside a house through a 4 ft x 4 ft window, then through a 2 ft x 2 ft window. One can see all of the same things through the smaller window (by moving the head to change the viewing angle), but the viewer can see more at once through the 4 ft window.”

    Let’s structurally define the dungeoncrawl as “explore rooms in the dungeon, fight the monsters in those rooms, and take their treasure”. Let’s further say that we have a dungeon with 16 rooms in it. Over the course of three sessions, the whole dungeon gets explored. We have a PC who could only participate in the first session where 4 rooms were explored (he’s looking through a 2×2 window); we have a PC who participated in the last session where 4 different rooms were explored (he’s looking through a different 2×2 window); and we have a PC who participated in all three sessions and explored all 16 rooms (he’s looking through a 4×4 window). While all three of these PCs had different experiences, all of their experiences fulfilled the entirety of the dungeoncrawl structure (they explored rooms, they killed monsters, they left with treasure).

    This can be contrasted with something like a mystery scenario, which we might define structurally as “investigate crime, find clues, and catch the bad guy”. If we imagine this scenario playing out over three sessions you can trivially see that it’s non-holographic: The guy participating only in the first session doesn’t get to experience the “catch the bad guy” portion of the structure. His photograph is torn in half.

    In practice it’s not always that simple. (This is largely the effect of players becoming personally invested in accomplishing certain goals: They want to be the one to kill the Minotaur on Level 5.) But it’s true enough to make the open table works without unsatisfying/incomplete/half-torn sessions being the normal operating procedure.

  17. This Week In Roleplaying – January 23rd, 2015 – RPG Alchemy says:

    […] Thinking About Urbancrawls (The Alexandrian) – A fascinating series about Urbancrawls. Before I read it, I thought he was […]

  18. DanDare says:

    Urban crawls need a different default goal to begin with.

    Finding information, services, goods, patrons, employment and employees.

    Most GMs just make an Inn and it fulfills all those goals, which is crazy.

    Inns may be good places for some sorts of information, a place to sleep and get a meal.

    Markets, many different types, are places to get sets of some goods and to encounter casual thievery.

    There are specific types of shops for certain goods and encounters to have with the clientele and masters that can fulfill information, employment and employee goals.

    There are public spaces where pronouncements are made and various classes of people pass by on their own business. Wandering encounter tables come to mind with few being combat interactions (some may be).

    I can think of more but dinner is ready. I’ll be back.

  19. DanDare says:

    I’m back. Pasta. Yummm.

    Anyway, urban crawls need point to point public spaces with attached semi public or private nodes with varied entry requirements.

    They also need a “default goal cycle state table” and random encounter tables for various classes of public space.

    That’s just me shooting ideas. I just came up with them on the fly having read your other posts and been inspired. Now I have to go away and see if I can turn that into more concrete stuff and play test it!



  20. DanDare says:

    Oh wait, another thing…..theft.

    A rouge based party of characters can dungeon crawl a city.

    Also, seedy areas of town can become mini dungeons, especially a burrough that has been infested by warerats or the haunt of a careful vampire.

    You could also blend the urban and dungeon by having street levels and over street levels and sub street levels and sewers, with actual dungeons below mansions and merging at lower levels. Maybe some canals run through the city, repleat with water monsters and smuggler caves. Think Empire of the Petal Throne.

    The PCs could have a mission to “clean up this town”.

  21. DanDare says:

    To be holographic think mini-adventure covering multiple settings that would start and end in one session while changing the state of the larger environment for the next mini-adventure.

  22. Jeffrey McArthur says:

    I liked your articles on urban crawl. I mention them in the video on YouTube I listed as the website.

  23. Mattallen says:

    Before I continue on to the next page of the article, I’d like to say thanks to Justin Alexander for all this GM gold.

    This Open Game idea brings me back. (and may be just what I needed to help bring the casual Game alive as well.) The problem being, we’re adults now with huge time and commitment restrictions. So this Idea is so much fun, and more likely to have frequent casual play.

    Games that had that feel were The Hunt (a “Running Man” style maze cobmat game with a Pro-wrestling crowd appeal) and Paranoia (we only ever played 3-4 sessions at a go, and usually in the middle of a serious campaign to break tensions in the groups without the infighting where it mattered.)

    One of my favorite crawls (Sunless Citadel) was due to the whole dungeon semi-repopulating/changing every time we went back to town to rest/heal. it gave it a feel of a living scenario. They even came out and ambushed us! So I use this as a pivot point for my ideas here. I think it’s why groups enjoy having adventure set in large cities too. it’s rarely static and gives it an “alive” feel.

    I think d47 and Colubris echo about what the structure and motivation is: Spheres of Influence/Neighborhood/Location-Encounter(/Square) is where it’s at. With the The problem as I see it is that the traditional motivations of Loot/Treasure and XP fail as a default motivator.

    So let’s adjust what the measuring stick units are. I say it’s Influence or something of that nature. And how each encounter is handled grants positive or negative Influence.

    I keep getting hung up on coherency. What would they be collecting influence for? My Idea is being a member of, lets say, “City Year”. Before they head out into the urban setting they all don an identifier (red jacket with a logo). Let the starting group define the Organizations Mission statement. with a default of, “This group is trying to Cleanup/control parts of the city to make it safer and more productive for everyone.” This lends itself to any trope (guilds, gangs, rival leaders, politics)

    The City Year style team adventure organization might work with the node style play too, just make each clue a handout or easy clear NOTE and then end of each set the current players date (sesssion#) & leave them for the next group. (maybe they put them in a Chest) Next sessions’ group then opens the chest and looks through the clues to see what clues they want to follow this time.
    -Each day the group goes out to patrol. This team manages to learn where the gang lair is, but night is falling and City Team (the Org) will have to tackle that tomorrow. “Let’s bring this back to see if someone else found a clue.” the next game session, is the next morning (CY leader) send this other team to further the clues.

    This gives me great ideas on running groups in my town/city adventures.

    The node style play aside, I’m also wondering why players tends towards the “kill things” mode. then I looked at how much of most systems are devoted to Combat, and how much to Non-combat encounters. It seems in systems such as DND that a more robust/suggestive skill set is required for non-combat interactions, or maybe just separating them into two sets (combat and non-combat) I suppose that is what Skills vs. Feats are about… I just never felt the options help promote non-combat interactions like say Paranoia. How could you NOT have Non-combat fun with skills like Bootlicking, Chutzpah and Moxie. Those were inspirational! :)

    This is kinda long. But I find most systems need a better method to facilitate the Urban encounters navigation. add to that a common start point (CY) and an inherent goal (gold-like) and you’re in business.

    Great Articles, you’re helping to improve my GM/DM POV. THANK YOU.

  24. Colin M says:

    One conceit I considered for a post-apocalyptic urbancrawl setting: it’s dangerous to be outside for significant lengths of time (because of radiation? flying killbots? huge roving packs of predators? orbital mind-control satellites?) and therefore the players navigate the city through subway tunnels or sewers, popping aboveground only when necessary to accomplish some specific task. That way they’re guided by the topology of the subway system, which provides literal nodes for the players to move between.

    Since all the long-term safe areas are underground, it’s kind a reverse dungeon-crawl — the scary stuff is all *topside*, out in the open.

  25. Michael says:

    Forgive me if I’ve pointed you to this before, but I think it could come in handy. It seems to bear a resemblance to the ‘Watch’ system you developed for wilderness movement.

  26. My Next RPG Campaign – GM Resources – Concrete Chaos says:

    […] to my most recent campaign (and likely to my next one). His series on Node-Based Scenario Design, Urban Crawls, The Art of Pacing are top notch. Really anything from his Gamemastery 101 is great reading that […]

  27. falcotron says:

    I realize this is a year and a half late, but…

    Colubris mentioned Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Part of what made that game work is that it had just enough detail to make it feel like you were really exploring an LA-sized city, but there were really only a few hundred homes and businesses there rather than millions. Would that work in an RPG?

    I’m not sure, but Planescape: Torment might point in the right direction. It’s still a CRPG, not a real RPG, but it did manage to make you suspend disbelief enough to not question why a city of millions has only a few hundred locations to explore, with much lower resources than GTA:SA and without the copout of being so anarchic that you can drive around in a tank killing a whole neighborhood with no repercussions. What made that work?

    I suspect that ultimately, it worked because the urbancrawl was basically just a disguise for the faction struggles and the mystery story underneath. It looks like a crawl, but after the first few minutes of the game, that’s not actually the part that’s keeping you interested. So, right around the time you fully recognize how much compression/abstraction is going on with the city scale, you’re more relieved than annoyed that it doesn’t take half an hour to walk through all the districts between X and Y.

    I don’t know if this actually points to how to do an urbancrawl, so much as why not to do an urbancrawl, but it seems like something looking into further.

    Also, two people brought up Paranoia. Many Paranoia sessions are set inside the dome, dome, in urban setting with a high population, but abstract away the details. One infrared mess hall or communal viewing station is the same as any other, so it really doesn’t matter which one you visit. And if there are directions for getting to a specific one, it’s usually more entertaining if they’re wrong and you end up either having to distrust the Computer’s map or follow it through a blue door into a police shooting range. But still, if there’s a game that could run an exploration-based urbancrawl, it seems like it might be better to try it with Paranoia first, not D&D. (It’s certainly a good way to test the holistic principle–what are the odds the same characters that started the crawl will even be alive when you’re farther into it, even if you have the sxact same players?)

  28. Patrick says:

    I know this is a very old series of posts, but since I read through it and have done some thinking on it, I thought I’d share what I’ve come up with.

    I think that part of the struggle here is thinking about urban crawling as a geographic thing. However, the primary interesting things that happen in cities aren’t geographic (movement, combat, etc.), but social. Instead of thinking of it as an “urban crawl,” why not re-brand the concept as “social crawl”?

    I mean, the core concept behind crawl structures is open-endedness, right? So instead of an open-ended hex map or dungeon, have several social network webs of NPCs that know each other in various ways. Have some social networks easy to access (e.g., the group of regulars that drink at The Sleepy Crow Inn), and some much harder (e.g., the Assassin’s Guild, the mayor’s council, etc.)

    You can key each NPC with interesting clues (as per your mystery structure) that potentially lead to adventures, mysteries, and other social networks (via NPCs). These can be rumors, introductions, shady secrets, you name it.

    When building your city, lay out various layers of social webs. You could have simple rules for each social web (mayor’s council won’t interact with riff raff, the Thieves Guild network of fences will only buy stolen goods off people who have been personally introduced to them, just as magic items can only be purchased by people in the know, etc.).

    I feel like, this way, you can start to think of the social strata of urban areas as a dungeon. The default next action is something like “talk to people, follow leads.” Instead of doorways, you have relationships (the challenge becomes figuring out who knows who, and getting them to introduce you).

    Just my two cents. I was actually trying to figure out how you could make MMORPG towns and cities more engaging, but I think this would work fabulously for tabletop.


  29. Ilbranteloth says:

    Patrick –

    That’s a very cool insight. It also differentiates an urban adventure and even redirects the focus to different skills. In addition to the social webs you also have an overlay of a legal web (which has a bit of a social aspect as well), in terms of what behaviors are acceptable in the civilized world.

    I can see mapping out the structures with “secret doors” being the contacts that bridge the social structures. The timing of this is perfect because I’m in the process of writing out the background for a new campaign. Everybody comes from the same village, so they know most of the people in town. Mapping out the relationships between the NPCs and the plots and such will be a huge help.

  30. Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: The Issue of Tedium – Loot The Room says:

    […] One of my patrons made an interesting comment, and it set me to thinking more about how this campaign is actually going to function. We’ll get to that comment, and where I went from it, in a little bit. First, though, I want to define the idea of a crawl, since I know a lot of my readers aren’t familiar with it. In writing this series and trying to teach myself more about hex crawls and the like (because my own limited experience with them simply isn’t enough) has been Justin Alexander’s The Alexandrian, and he has a helpful breakdown of what constitutes a crawl in his discussion of urbancrawls: […]

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