[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]
U is for Urban Decay, something found at the stinking and depraved centers of "civilization" within the fantasy world.
I suppose there are some campaign settings where some or all of the towns were as idyllic as the village of Threshold in the Mentzer Expert set. Especially for players that started with the 1983 BECMI sets (and learned that D&D was about being “heroes”) the smurf-like, fairy tale village is probably par for the course. Protecting these idyllic settings will not only allow you to preserve that peaceful, small town life, but give you XP (and a reason to kill orcs) to boot. Think of yourselves as hobbits defending the Shire.
That’s not the urban setting I’m used to in Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve always taken my cue from the DMG, specifically the Ride of Emrikol the Chaotic. Twisted, cobblestone streets, taverns where people are all too quick to grab their swords, and bodies burning in the street. Basically something like the Wild West spliced with pre-Renaissance Europe. Filth and corruption and squalor.
That’s what civilization is like in MY campaign settings.
It’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed the Warhammer Fantasy setting…when I picked up my copy of WFRP in the early 90s, it was like returning to my D&D roots. Not the shininess of Mystarra and 2nd edition, but the stinking mess of 1st edition with back-alley assassins and wandering harlots. Hey, my cues were taken from Robert Aspirin’s Thieves World anthologies…not to mention Gygax’s own Gord the Rogue tales. For me, Sanctuary was Greyhawk with warmer weather.
And really why wouldn’t civilization be down and dirty and rotten and awful? I mean, how easy could life be that the best and the brightest would risk life and limb down some ancient ruin looking for treasure instead of doing something productive with their lives. Really! Greed is one thing, but in D&D real treasure is NOT easy to come by.
Ask my players.
No, your character may have been born to a high social status but that doesn’t mean your life isn’t sordid and small in the steaming stink of things. Ruling over a pig sty, how could you NOT turn towards an opportunity…ANY opportunity…to build your own story book Camelot some day.
If only you can pull enough gold out of the tomb.
Back in my day, going to town was an adventure in and of itself, rarely as easy as provisioning up and finding an inn in which to rest and heal. No, town was where you went to get into trouble. To get mugged, or rolled, or pick up some disease that would make you appreciate the party cleric all the more. If you were smart, you might stop by the local (pagan) temple and use some of that wealth to sacrifice a bull to Ares (or whomever your blood god of choice was). Then, if you had money left, you might head down to the docks to try to build your petty cash into something more, trying your hand at dice or cards in the local gambling house.
After which you could blow any winnings on archaic drugs, booze, and the aforementioned wandering whores.
Back then, thief skills were the prized “extras” any PC wanted to have. Thieves, thief-acrobats, assassins, thief-multi-classes (usually magic-user or illusionist), 1st edition bards, dual-class characters with a couple levels of thief…usually all the players were making sure they had some backstabbing and concealment ability for use in town. “It takes a thief to know one” and “no honor among thieves” were phrases that got passed around quite a bit…plus being able to “climb walls” sure helped getting into and out of buildings through ways other than the front door.
Urban adventures. Urban decadence. I don’t remember anyone ever making a big haul of loot in any particular urban setting. Oh, there was a raid on the assassin’s guild of Willip, but that was payback and personal, even if there was some treasure that came out of it.
No, I think our urban adventures were mainly just due to PCs being tired of sleeping in the woods.
As a DM, urban adventures were always desirable…nothing says player killer like high level (human) NPCs and one usually runs out of good reasons to have human opponents in weird or fantastic “dungeon” settings. If you WANT to pit characters against tough adventurer-types, the concrete jungle is the place to encounter them. In all their splendor.
In all their decay.
One should be wary of any walled sprawl that greets visitors with a few heads on spikes. It was not a “gentle” age, this mythology that has helped inspire so many ugly-faced fantasy films of the “B” variety.
Personally, I love it…but I understand that’s a subjective personal preference. I don’t think I’d let my children hang out in that particular campaign setting, but I wouldn't want my game to be any other way.