Detectives on duty were summoned to the scene of a suspected homicide, at the interior of a granary warehouse in the Harbor District. The body of an older male, possibly a magic user, was found lying on the ground with a large open abdominal wound. Nearby was a flatbed cart supporting a 4'x6' cage whose padlock was opened, seemingly without force. Still harnessed to the cart was a donkey who had bled out from the throat. Detectives noticed the neck had been sliced, but could not determine the instrument used. The deceased was in possession of a set of keys, one of which fit the padlock, some arcane material components, a bit of cash, and some type of jerky.
Persons of Interest
Just after meeting Boris at Sid's, a local farmer rode into the neighborhood, agitated and looking for assistance.
In my early GM'ing days, I was nervous about urban scenarios. So many NPC's and locations to keep track of! I felt much more comfortable leading parties through a more linear scenario, like a typical dungeon crawl, where there are specific rooms with specific encounters, all mapped out with little ambiguity.
But recently I suspected that a city campaign doesn't have to be any more difficult. I would still be planning encounters, just not placing them in a dungeon. Encounters are more conversational than confrontational, which places an emphasis on role-playing. And role-playing is kind of the point of these types of games, right?
In crafting our first scenario, I followed these guidelines:
- A role-playing game is collaborative storytelling. Whether in a dungeon or in city hall, the narrative is what matters. My players spend effort crafting characters with unique backstories, motivations, and personalities. If my efforts are spent mostly planning combat encounters, I'm not justifying their efforts. The process of urban scenario creation is fundamentally that of dungeon creation: Invent some key encounters that drive the plot. The difference is in how to move the action towards the encounters you planned. That's why I chose the detective theme; as characters discover clues, they'll be led to the NPC's I created.
- Write the story that happens off-camera first. This is especially true for the detective-themed campaign. Mysteries seem tricky to write, and they are when you take the point of view of the characters. But if you build a detailed story of what happened at the scene of the crime, you're prepared to handle your players' actions from an omniscient standpoint.
- If role-playing causes the story to diverge from what you planned, be prepared to roll with it. In last night's session, our heroes canvassed the area around the scene of the alleged crime. I considered fast-tracking it to keep the pace quick, but decided to role-play a conversation they had with a local marina clerk. I knew there was some traffic at the docks that might be of interest to the characters; and even though I wasn't planning for them to find a clue at the clerk's office, one character asked to take a look at the previous day's activity log. I was able to give them another clue without my having prepared for that interaction. This is why point number 2 above, writing the off-camera story, is so crucial. As far as the players know, I intended for them to discover that clue.
- Award XP for moving the story forward. In a story-based campaign, plot development is more important than slaying monsters. For my first scenario, I added to my notes a list of key plot points, which would each trigger a certain amount of XP to be awarded at the end of the session.
The biggest thing to remember is that just because PC's are in a "sandbox" style environment, that doesn't mean they are free-roaming. Encounters aren't random; they are weaved into a narrative.
The players' reaction was mostly positive last night. I was anxious to hear their feedback after an entire session with no combat and only a handful of attribute checks. We never even broke out a map or minis. Everyone seemed happy to have experienced a session that allowed them to build a story and flex their character's personality traits. For a while, it felt strange going for such a long stretch without any combat action; but because the party was finding clues leading to a suspect there was still a sense of progress.
If our first night in this campaign is any indication of what's to come, I might strongly prefer the story-driven, quasi-sandbox scenario over underground and interior crawls. With the right kind of preparation, it's not only a refreshing change of pace for players, but I get to play along, with every NPC as my character, and not just adjudicate over die rolls.