We built this city on Rocks and Rolls. We did! It’s the parody that plays in my head on a nearly endless loop whenever I think of a completed adventure. Following my methods from the previous articles allow you to do just that: make a city. We made a city full of foundations, roofs, and above all else, pillars. That’s the way it should be. The adventure you take your players on is not as simple as coming up with a single idea, a single building. It’s about creating numerous buildings.
Imagine a city block, and within that block there is a single building. It’s nice. Has some cool features. People come and take pictures occasionally, but eventually people stop showing up. “It was nice the first time I was here…” Now it’s old news. Imagine now that a local man built a coffee shop next door, and a young entrepreneur decided to create a hanging garden. Another builds a building full of studio apartments, a small museum… People nearby that love the building see the potential of the space and create something grand. Before you know it the city block becomes a bustling hub for creativity and community spirit.
You, the GM, owned that block. You created the first building. The inspiration. The others: They built on it and created something for themselves. You were successful in spurring their ambition and helped them create their own community. That’s how it works. The GM creates the Building on the empty block, the players fill it up with and make its surroundings come to life.
How do we let them build their own city block?
I wish there was a simple answer to this, an end all response. There isn’t. The truth is that depending on your group and how they play you will take a different path. Some groups need structure and linear paths, others will groan at the simplest of player agency transgressions. I can, however, impart on you how I run things. My style. My path.
When I create a pillar, the story, I start small. I know from previously creating the Beginning and the End how my players are starting, and where they will inevitably end up. Everything in between is void. Nothingness. We’ve taken some time to world build based on our previous work. So we can add those things in. We know where they start. We discussed that previously. My players need a big nudge early on. So I tend to start them in the thick of things. A very linear start.
You have been summoned to the nearby city to investigate a plea for help…
This is the new foundation. We know they are starting an adventure in a nearby town that has a plea for help. From here I create a new roof and decide what the end game of this part of the adventure looks like. I know the overarching ending that I created previously so I go ahead and create a plot that would thrust the players closer to that end. In this case a member of a guild has taken up the guise of a bandit leader to seek out a long lost laboratory. From here I would create the town, it’s inhabitants, and maybe plan a few encounters. I also created some other nearby places incase they wanted to seek help.
As the game starts they crest the hill and overlook the small town below them. They are already at their destination. I let them know from a flashback how they were pressed by the drunkard leader of their adventuring guild to investigate this town as a favor for an old friend. So here they are. Investigating. I created the town and the people in it. I created a villain and his gang and gave them a plan. I included some allies. I even pulled on their heartstrings with some innocent orphans. I created a building within a building… Building-ception (Is this reference still a thing?). Using my previous method, I’ve created the foundation and the roof. It’s now up to the players to finish it. They decide what happens next.
In this example they went directly to the local house of depravity and made their presence well known by picking a fight. They learned a lot at the expense of losing the element of surprise. It was their choice. They built that pillar. From here on out they made all the choices and I reacted to them. I changed how allies and enemies revered them each week based on their actions. Eventually the snuffed out the shape changing ghoul’s devilish plan by gathering local allies to show a unified front against the gang and following his trail into an abandoned mine.
They learned more…
From here I created a new foundation and roof. They moved on to the next building. New information, new choices, and new allies and enemies. They create their city block while you oversee its construction. Being an overseer is tough. As the GM you are expected to know the answer to every question. If a player asks you: “What does the armpit of the Troll carcass smell like?” You are expected to know. (I had someone ask me this question once at an event. He was certain he could determine its recent diet from the smell of the armpit. He was serious…) You’re expected to have the names of every person they come across, a menu for every inn, and a name for every road.
Do yourself a favor: Make shit up… And get good at it too. You need to leave blanks for the players to fill in with their characters, and the only way to do this successfully is to be able to make shit up. It takes time to get good at. Practice (There’s that word again…). Here are s few suggestions to help you out.
- Find or create lists. Lists of names, foods, and street names. Find dwarf names and Elf names. Bird name and Dog names. It’s better to create these lists yourself than to find previously made ones, however, there are a number of resources online dedicated to random names. In Xanathar’s Guide to Everything there is an index of names from all different nationalities. There are random name generators. Popular baby name sites. Etc.
- Write things down. If you name someone write it down. If your players ask a question you didn’t know the answer to and you make something up on the spot, write it down. If you have the space and the technology record your sessions. You’ll be surprised how much you can forget week to week. Write. It. Down.
- Keep pictures of people. If you need to describe someone it’s always helpful to have a point of reference. If I know the players are in a town full of dragonborn, I’ll find a bunch of dragonborn pictures and save them to a folder. If I have to describe on I open up the picture and use that as a reference. In time you won’t need them anymore.
- Creatively write. There are hundreds of writing prompt websites online, as well as on reddit. Take some time to get creative and do some writing prompts. Don;t worry about grammar or talent. Just go with the flow. Thinking creatively on the regular keeps that part of you active and avoids lethargy.
- Read often. Books are amazing references. They help you learn how to describe the world around you and the people in it. This is what you, a GM, have to do. Reading voraciously is a great way to see how others would describe their world.
Bringing it all together: The City Block.
Start at the beginning and create the foundation, then create the roof, and finally let your players build the pillars while you oversee their construction. That’s how I run my games. I create the beginning (Foundation) and the end (Roof). And the players fill in the rest (Pillars)… Mostly.
You have a lot to do in-between. Every week you need to adapt the adventure to your players choices. In the beginning you need to create NPCs and threats. You need to plan potential encounters. Create cities.