The Alexandrian

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Ptolus - Delver's Square

Using the experimental hexmap we made for Ptolus (which you might want to open in a second window for easy cross-referencing), imagine that the PCs are staying at the Ghostly Minstrel in hex E5. The GM asks them what they want to do and they say that they want to head south into the Longbottom neighborhood.

What happens next?


When it comes to triggering the keyed encounters in an urbancrawl’s key, it seems to me that there are a few different options:

First, there is a chance they might trigger any time that someone travels through the hex. (In other words, even if the PCs are using the “target-based” movement we talked about earlier – when they’re simply moving from one known location to another – you’d still check for encounters in the hexes they pass through.)

Second, the encounters only trigger if the PCs are specifically patrolling or searching or crawling or putting their ear to the ground (or whatever).

(Of course, you could also go both ways by having different odds of triggering encounters depending on the approach the PCs are taking.)

If there is a difference between ‘crawl and non-crawl movement, one way to clearly distinguish between them would be to add some sort of mechanical hook to the ‘crawl based movement: For example, if the PCs want to ‘crawl hex E4 they might have to make a Gather Information check. (This would make an urbancrawl a little more like the old school “clearing the hex” mechanic, in which the PCs would have to specifically state their intention to take a specific action within a specific geographic location.)

This sort of mechanic, however, works best if the players are more aware of the structure: In other words, we’d want them to be able to see the hex they were exploring and know its boundaries. Which leads me to…


Putting this hypothetical urbancrawl into imaginary practice, I’m almost immediately reconsidering my rejection of keying by neighborhood. Exploring the entire Temple District feels too large, but looking at the Ptolus map and saying “I want to shake things up in the Longbottom neighborhood” feels pretty natural.

Similarly, if I were to look at a neighborhood map of my hometown:

Minneapolis Neighborhood Map

(click for larger version)

Keying content to each community (Nokomis, Powderhorn, Longfellow, etc.) actually feels like a pretty good place to start. And if I ended up wanting more detail than that, I could drill down to individual neighborhoods (so that Powderhorn, for example, would break down into Central, Bryant, Bancroft, Standish, and Corcoran).

Random thought: LANDMARKS. Put a landmark in each neighborhood/community/ward that you’re keying. Like, if you knew the city you’d say things like, “Oh yeah, that’s where Burt’s Tavern is.” Or the Old Clock Tower. Or the Red Sash Brothel or whatever.


So the PCs head south into hex E4 and start poking around. They end up triggering the ‘crawl encounter, so I check the key:

E4. BLACKSTOCK PRINTING: Blackstock is one of the few businesses in the city with a functioning, large-scale movable type printing press. (Many of the city’s newssheets are printed here.) What is not widely known is that the press is controlled by six of Aelian Fardream’s clones (who were awakened from temporal stasis due to a strange magical surge several years ago).

In actual practice, my key would probably have more info about Blackstock Printing than that. (In fact, you can find a lot more information on pg. 353 of Ptolus.) But what I’m struggling with is the idea of what it actually means to trigger this particular encounter. Off-hand there a couple possibilities:

First, they could be walking by Blackstock Printing when they spot the same person standing in two different places at the same time. (That’s an interesting hook that might prompt them to investigate.)

Second, we could use something like the scenario included in the Ptolus sourcebook: The Shadow Eyes clone of Aelian Fardream attacks someone in Midtown. The PCs later overhear an eyewitness saying that she’d seen this guy before – at a printing shop in the South Market.

I can see how either of those could be a natural response to “we’re poking around the Longbottom neighborhood”. But what if they had headed southeast and ended up triggering the encounter in hex G4 instead:

G4. POTIONS AND ELIXIRS: A well-stoked alchemical supply and potion store. The sole proprietor is a half-elf sorcerer named Buele Nox.

Harder to see what triggering that encounter actually means. Part of that can simply be explained as the Potions and Elixirs shop not having innate interest, but to some extent I think that’s actually begging the question.

As I struggle to come to grips with what the encounter trigger really means in terms of the urbancrawl, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that part of my problem is that the urban environment simply lends itself naturally to a wider array of categorical experiences than a dungeoncrawl or hexcrawl.

Let me unpack that a bit: The default trigger for an encounter key in the dungeon is simply “entering a room”. Similarly, the default trigger for an encounter key in the hexcrawl is “seeing something on the horizon”.

Or, more generally, they both boil down: “They see something.”

This works in the dungeoncrawl because the border of the room is clearly defined. It works in the hexcrawl because the encounter stands in contrast to the wilderness around it.

The problem with the city (at least to my perception) is that the points of interest to a wandering adventurer are not placed in plain sight and/or immediately contrasted from the surrounding context: The monsters and mysteries and oddities and weirdness are tucked out of sight and generally inaccessible to the average person just walking by.

I’m beginning to suspect that the answer to this conundrum lies in a pair of questions: Why are the PCs urbancrawling? And what are they actually doing when they “crawl”?

Before we delve into those questions, however, I think I want to take a brief detour through some old school inspiration.

Go to Part 6: Old School Inspiration

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7 Responses to “Thinking About Urbancrawls – Part 5: Using the Ptolus Hexmap”

  1. Charles Saeger says:

    If Whittier is lumped in Powderhorn, the a “community” as defined by City Hall is too big for an urban crawl. Minneapolis is likely much bigger than most urban crawl settings, being threefold bigger than Waterdeep. I shudder to handle New York.

  2. Kinak says:

    I feel like the “seeing things” equivalent for urbancrawl would be landmarks or obvious neighborhood features. The real hooks for encounters seem like they’d either be actions the players take in response to landmarks or be tied into random event/encounter tables.

    Which seems appropriate for a city. It’s rare for a neighborhood to really reach out and start encounters, although it’s not unheard of for neighborhoods to be violent against outsiders or full of preachers/beggars.

    Granted, it’s probably important for different neighborhood types to have different tables, as you’d have with terrain types in a hexcrawl.

    If I were running an urbancrawl, though, it would probably be very crime-focused, with the party trying to take over the city. So that would be keyed in a very different way, almost more along the lines of a Birthright map writ small.


  3. Confanity says:

    I feel like your problem here is actually in the kind of encounter keys that you have.

    For example, take “A well-stoked [sic] alchemical supply and potion store. The sole proprietor is a half-elf sorcerer named Buele Nox.” On the one hand, this is potentially full of things for the PCs do to, even without any special shenanigans like cults. On the other hand, a store doesn’t especially stand out in a normal city.

    “Triggering an encounter” with a store in a city is like “triggering an encounter” with a stalactite in a cave, or with a pond in the wilderness: there are potentially things the PCs can do with them, but they don’t stand out and they don’t demand a response in the same way that a threat or weirdness or other shenanigans do. And that seems to be the issue: you want key entries that are more forceful in their demand for a response.

    So instead of having a printing press, have something that happens at or in relation to the printing press, like two clones being spotted at the same time, as you said. Instead of keying “a store,” key some events that happen in relation to the store: Chemical spill! Robbery gone wrong! Robbery gone right! Alchemical duel! Or if the store itself is the encounter, it needs to stand out. Maybe instead of “you see a potion shop,” use “you see a shop standing on clawed panther feet. It lowers its entry to ground level in invitation whenever someone passes within arm’s length.” This is more of an invitation to choice and action on the PCs’ part, even if entering simply puts them inside a potion shop.

    Don’t try to have the PCs going around “triggering” mundane bits of city. Have the PCs encounter situations that invite action.

  4. Josua says:

    You should check your code for the map of minneapolis. There is an error and the link is not working.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Fixed! Thanks!

  6. BenTheFerg says:

    Hi Justin

    Although it is an entirely different beast, the Razor Coast (I have the PF version) attempts to tread the line between urbancrawl/saltbox whilst also having a variety of side stories, hooks, vignettes…. a model which could be partially applied to say Ptolus

    Admittedly Ptolus is a TALL order to run (I have it too). Massive. Overwhelming. But I think if one was to ‘Razor Coast’ Ptolus there is a chance this would create a more dynamic urbancrawl where pcs are stumbling into stuff happening in various sections of the city, and taking sides/ resolving disputes between npcs….. etc. You can throw events at pcs in various areas of the city and see what things they bite as such.

    Behind that you would want to create that npc hex-relationship map as you previously mentioned, and from there create some interactions, conflicts, joint venture between various factions (there are so many!) which you then flesh out in your random encounter tables.

    I am having a go at this slowly myself

    I am creating some bespoke encounter tables – using a table you flagged up – but tweaking it further. Eg if a noble (‘active subject’ column 1) is trying to murder (verb – col 2) another noble (‘object of action’ col 3) over love/lust (motive – col 4) …..which noble houses are involved? roll on one table for noble houses…… then from there roll on that noble house’s bespoke table from their ‘enemies list’ (with small chances of friendly houses coming up)…. then roll again on each house from premade nobles or create some on the fly using a random name generator etc etc…… all work in progress! BUt the idea being that random tables bring to live the tensions, conflicts, and flavour of the factions, their goals and their faction culture. Which makes the encounter more memorable.

    Once I have done some more I will post some outcomes. I am a little distracted since my wife is about to enter into labour!!! BUT once I have put my feet back on the ground and managed to get to something resembling normal (admittedly this maybe in several months) I will post!

    Keep up the interesting and thought provoking work – it did its job by getting me thinking! Have always wanted to run Ptolus -but Pathfinder was always too much like hard work… with 5e urbancrawling seems possible and practicable.


  7. Coldyham says:

    Theres definitely something which I see as quite obvious, although you may have mentioned or referenced it, which is, as you said Hex-crawl ‘encounters’ are permanent structures or landmarks, whereas (often, in my opinion) Dungeon-crawl encounters are wandering or transient creatures and monsters. Cities have both of these.
    You might have obvious landmarks which are discovered upon entry and described; church spire, large market, particular smell (Very important in medaeval-ish cities) Which depend on particular ‘neighbourhood’ or even district (your ‘hexes’).
    Then permanent encounters; potion shop, inn, interesting alleyway, Which depend on particular street within the neighbourhood (can randomise, and assume players know how to find again within ‘hex’ if chanced upon once).
    Then, the more difficult task of ‘wandering’ encounters; drunk singing on a corner, courier in a hurry, gang of thugs etc. Which all depend as well as on particular streets, on the time of day or on events which might cause them, but which really provide the meat of a city in terms both of making it real and of plot hooks.

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